Education

Folsom’s Ronin Shimizu taunted at several schools before suicide

Folsom High School students sign a pledge to stand up against bullying and are given a yellow ribbon for suicide prevention as they participate in a balloon release for Ronin Shimizu, 12, on Tuesday in Folsom. Ronin, 12, committed suicide Dec. 3. McKenna Quinn, 16, far left, said, “If he was a sad kid he didn’t show it.” She also said the last time she saw him he bought hot chocolate for everyone after rowing practice. Jacquelyn Bass, 17, second from left, said they were in the Upper Natomas Rowing Club with Ronin. Front row from left, Kennedy Marquez, Jaycie Schenone, and Olivia Romano, all 17, attended the balloon release. “We didn’t know him but we were touched by this,” said Romano.
Folsom High School students sign a pledge to stand up against bullying and are given a yellow ribbon for suicide prevention as they participate in a balloon release for Ronin Shimizu, 12, on Tuesday in Folsom. Ronin, 12, committed suicide Dec. 3. McKenna Quinn, 16, far left, said, “If he was a sad kid he didn’t show it.” She also said the last time she saw him he bought hot chocolate for everyone after rowing practice. Jacquelyn Bass, 17, second from left, said they were in the Upper Natomas Rowing Club with Ronin. Front row from left, Kennedy Marquez, Jaycie Schenone, and Olivia Romano, all 17, attended the balloon release. “We didn’t know him but we were touched by this,” said Romano. rbyer@sacbee.com

Schoolyard taunts, teasing and bullying dogged 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu for years, a family friend said Tuesday, leading the Folsom boy’s parents to shuttle him from campus to campus across town, finally resorting to home schooling in a vain attempt to outrun the attacks.

“His family was supportive 100 percent. They knew he wasn’t the typical, average boy – football, wrestling,” said Josh Meixner of Folsom, a Shimizu family friend. “They wanted to take him to a school where he could be accepted, but it never happened. They tried to shield him from the bullying.”

Ronin’s suicide one week ago, the tragic result of years of bullying, family and friends say, has shocked and sobered a community, received international attention and rekindled discussion of bullying’s destructive toll on young people.

On Tuesday, students at Folsom High School gathered during the lunch hour and released light green-colored balloons – Ronin’s favorite color – into a gray sky and pledged to stand up to bullying.

A Ronin Shimizu fundraising effort that began Saturday at GoFundMe.com had raised close to $11,000 by Tuesday. Mourners shared condolences on a community Facebook page, Ronin’s Voice.

Meantime, district officials are contacting principals who were at Ronin’s campuses and examining how the district handled previous issues at the schools. The Shimizu family had lodged bullying complaints at Folsom Middle School, where Ronin attended sixth grade briefly in 2013, and at a previous campus, said Daniel Thigpen, a Folsom Cordova Unified School District spokesman.

“We have an obligation to go back now and dig deep and find out if there is anything we could have done,” Thigpen said.

The district’s review will stretch back several years at several schools.

“We want as much information as we can to ask the questions we need to ask,” Thigpen said. He said it was too early to set a timeline. “We need to take the time to review this thoroughly. That takes some time.”

Many of the students at the Folsom High ceremony did not know Ronin, but knew too well their own bouts with bullying and the pain it caused.

“The bullying continues and no one cares,” said 14-year-old Nestor Iwanojko, a freshman, recalling his treatment in the sixth and seventh grades at Sutter Middle School. “You just have to be strong enough.”

“I had long hair back then, and people were making fun of me for that and calling me names,” Iwanojko continued. “Some people would try to start fights. They would gang up. You try to defend yourself, but the fact that there is five on one, you can’t do much.”

Family and friends in memorials, on social media and Tuesday at Folsom High School remembered Ronin as artistic and funny, a jokester unafraid to follow his heart. He sketched out his own designs and had an eye for fashion.

“He’s a bright kid. He was into that kind of stuff,” Meixner said. “He was into clothes. He would say to girls, ‘I think that outfit’s cute,’ or ‘I like your purse.’”

Ronin loved art, fashion and, especially, cheerleading, and he dove into the three head on. He especially shone as the only boy on the Vista Jr Eagles Cheer squad.

“He was good at it,” said Meixner, an assistant wrestling coach at Folsom High. “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.”

Ronin ultimately gave up cheerleading in April, tired of the constant harassment, Meixner said.

Even Meixner’s young daughter, Sophia, just 9 years old and a cheerleader herself in another Folsom program, was troubled.

“He was very nice and sweet. He liked cheer and was very polite,” she said. “He had to quit cheer because people kept bullying him.”

Ronin’s parents tried to find a safe harbor for their son’s vivacious spirit, Meixner said, but too often it was met with ugly words and worse.

The Meixners and Shimizus are close family friends, for several years, neighbors on the same street – a relationship of fishing trips and children’s play dates, movies and splashing at the local swim park. Meixner said Ronin’s troubles began early.

“A lot of it happened in elementary school,” he said.

Most of Ronin’s elementary school years were spent at Folsom’s Russell Ranch Elementary, where he attended from kindergarten in August 2007 until October 2012, according to district attendance records. It was a rough time for Ronin, Meixner said.

There were slurs and name calling. Once, he was beaten up, Meixner said. Ronin briefly attended Oak Chan Elementary, enrolling in October 2012 and finishing the fifth grade. In August 2013, he began attending sixth grade at Folsom Middle School. But he left in November, shortly after his family filed a complaint with the district about bullying.

“It wasn’t just boys, but girls, too. I can’t say it happened daily, but it happened all the time,” Meixner said.

He then began a program of independent study at home and enrolled at Folsom Cordova Community Charter, where students follow the district curriculum. Teachers, parents and students in that program meet every two weeks at Sutter Middle School.

The home-charter combination appeared to provide a respite for Ronin and family before tragedy struck.

He’d even begun to take up rowing, joining the Upper Natoma Rowing Club as a novice in September. McKenna Quinn, 16, another novice crew member, said the word of Ronin’s suicide was totally unexpected. She said the crew was like a family, and rowers seemed to leave their troubles at home.

“If he was a sad kid,” she said at the Folsom High ceremony, “he didn’t show it.”

But the pain was there, Meixner said. Ronin’s family and friends hope that something more can rise from the anguish.

“They want this tragedy to turn into something positive,” he said. “That people can be accepted for who they are.”

Call The Bee’s Darrell Smith, (916) 321-1040.

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