When 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu committed suicide in his Folsom home last December, the world took notice.
Social media hashtag #RIPRonin led to a forum where thousands, many of them strangers, grieved the loss of the smiley seventh-grader, who was tormented for being on the cheerleading squad.
Ronin’s death became a call to action – inspiring rallies, balloon releases, fliers and memorial funds – to stop school bullying. His parents, Danielle and Brandon Shimizu, hope to raise awareness Friday with a special screening of the anti-bullying film, “A Girl Like Her.”
The showing, scheduled for 7 p.m. at Century 14 Folsom, is “based on a million true stories” of bullies and their victims, and sheds light on what the filmmaker calls the “teen bullying epidemic.” In the fictional film, a female student is verbally and physically abused by another girl both at school and on the Internet, causing severe stress and anxiety that eventually leads her to self-harm.
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Danielle Shimizu, who initially heard about the film through a friend, said she was struck by its focus on the tormentor rather than just the victim. She wrote in a letter about the film that bullies are products of their environment, and understanding their actions is the “missing link” to solving the bullying problem.
“That movie gives you the whole picture,” she said. “It doesn’t talk about the victim, it talks about the person that is tormenting the victim. To me, that’s the root of the problem. ... What kind of environment are these kids coming from?”
Ronin’s bullies were mostly boys who, starting in elementary school, taunted him when he “acted like a girl,” Danielle Shimizu wrote. Ronin attended sixth grade briefly at Folsom Middle School, where words like “gay,” “faggot” and “queer,” were directed toward him on a daily basis. His parents lodged formal complaints about the bullying and eventually removed Ronin to have him home-schooled.
Friends said Ronin loved art, fashion and, above all, cheerleading with the Vista Jr. Eagles cheer squad. He quit cheerleading last April to escape the bullying, Josh Meixner of Folsom, a Shimizu family friend, said after Ronin’s death.
“He was good at it,” Meixner said in December. “He was better than some of the girls out there. It was almost like second nature to him – the somersaults and handsprings – but they teased him so bad.”
Teryn Heckers, program coordinator for the California Youth Crisis Line, said it can be beneficial, particularly for students who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender – or are perceived as such – to move to a smaller or more tolerant school environment. When students do not feel safe in school, it affects their mental and physical well-being and can impact academic success, she said. Her hotline tries to help students and families identify safe ways to deal with a bullying problem, find counseling or take legal action if necessary.
A bullying-related death such as Ronin’s can make a community aware of the severity of bullying and spark dialogue about how to prevent it, she added.
“It has started a conversation in the greater Sacramento area,” Heckers said. “It forces people to take a look at what can happen if someone does not get the treatment they need.”
The California Youth Crisis Line and the Sacramento LGBT Community Center will both be present at Friday’s movie screening to hand out information and answer questions about bullying.
Daniel Thigpen, spokesman for Folsom Cordova Unified School District, said Ronin’s death has inspired students, teachers and administrators to work on preventing future bullying. There are now 100 people on a special bullying task force, he said.
The district is also reviewing Ronin’s past bullying incidents, and has hired a new child welfare coordinator.
“We’ve identified areas of immediate improvement,” Thigpen said. “Taking a look at the situation while Ronin was a student will continue to inform whether we need to do a better job in how we respond to complaints of bullying. Our intent is to learn from that review, and make sure we prevent a future tragedy.”
In the meantime, the Shimizus are heading their own prevention efforts through Ronin’s Voice, currently a Facebook support group that they plan to turn into a nonprofit. All proceeds from Friday’s ticket sales will go toward that effort.
For now, Danielle Shimizu said, they just hope to spread the word about the film, and help people understand the bigger picture behind what happened to their son.
“We’re hoping that when parents and children view this movie, it will help open up dialogue within their homes,” she said. “It’s important for both the child and the parent to view this together. We want to open a dialogue between families.”
Editor’s note: This story was changed March 27 to correct the name California Youth Crisis Line and the spelling of Teryn Heckers’ last name.
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Screening of “A Girl Like Her”
When: Friday, 7 p.m.
Where: Century 14 Folsom, 261 Iron Point Road, Folsom