The parents of a 12-year-old Tennessee boy who died by suicide say he was relentlessly bullied at school for being gay prior to his death.
Debbey and Steve Fritchley, the parents of Eli Fritchley, a seventh grader at Cascades Middle School in Shelbyville, Tennessee, say they believe their son took his life a week before last Sunday because he was tormented at school for his gender nonconformity.
Eli, a trombone player in the school’s marching band, painted his nails, loved the color pink, and wore the same SpongeBob sweatshirt nearly every day.
“I think probably because he was in the same clothes every single day that they used that as a weapon,” his mother told the Nashville-based ABC affiliate WKRN, saying her son loved doing the laundry and cleaning his clothes every day.
But Eli’s treatment at the hands of his classmates went far beyond teasing to outright condemnation.
“He was told because he didn’t necessarily have a religion and that he said he was gay that he was going to go to Hell. They told him that quite often,” Debbey Fritchley said.
“It was really abusive. I don’t think it was ever physical. I think it was just words, but words hurt. They really hurt,” Steve Fritchley added.
“He didn’t care, or at least we thought he didn’t care, and that’s what’s really difficult for us because we thought he didn’t care,” Debbey said, noting that her son remained friendly and compassionate despite the bullying.
“This has just blindsided us,” she continued. “This is something we would have never, ever expected.”
The Fritchleys, who have five other sons, are calling on the school system to take steps to address bullying so that other children will not be victimized.
“I honestly think education, education, education for everyone where bullying is concerned because it is a problem, not just in Bedford County. It’s a problem everywhere,” Debbey said.
The Fritchleys were regulars at Penalties Sports Bar & Grill in Shelbyville. The owners of the restaurant, Rob and Shondelle Lewis, who thought of the Fritchleys as family, said they’re devastated by Eli’s suicide.
To help, the Lewises have created a GoFundMe page to raise money for a foundation that the Fritchley family will be starting to educate people about bullying and suicide awareness.
“This fund is being set up in memory of Eli and 100% will go to a foundation being created that will go towards helping other kids and families that might be in the same situation as the Fritchley’s (sic) so that this terrible tragedy doesn’t have to happen again,” Shondelle wrote in the GoFundMe page’s description.
“As parents and grandparents, it is our responsibility to teach our children to love, not hate; to be kind, not mean; to understand that we are all different in our own ways and that is OK. Hug your children and your grandchildren, tell them this world doesn’t have to be so full of evil because in the end, evil never wins,” she continued.
Bedford County Schools released a statement mourning Eli’s death.
“We are absolutely shocked and devastated by this news,” Dr. Tammy Garrett, the superintendent of schools in Bedford County, said in the statement. “Anytime someone takes his or her life, especially a child, it is nearly unbearable. Our hearts go out to his parents and family as they deal with this terrible loss.”
Garrett added that the school system and community will be looking into further efforts to support social and emotional learning in the schools, including support programs for middle and high school students who are experiencing bullying or harassment.
“Raising caring, kind, resilient children is all of our jobs, and parents are not alone,” Garrett said. “At Bedford County Schools we strive to provide positive learning environments with positive affirmations for all children, every day. What’s best for our students is what is best for BCS.”
The mass shooter who killed three children and three staffers at a Nashville Christian school on Monday, March 27, has been identified by police as 28-year-old Audrey Hale, of Nashville, a former student of The Covenant School.
Hale, who identified as transgender, had no previous criminal record, according to Metropolitan Nashville Police Department Chief John Drake. Police say Hale's attack was carefully planned out.
The six victims of the shooting include three nine-year-olds -- Evelyn Dieckhaus, Hallie Scruggs, and William Kinney -- 61-year-old Cynthia Peak, 61-year-old Mike Hill, and 60-year-old Katherine Koonce, the head of The Covenant School. All were pronounced dead at local area hospitals.
A fundamentalist pastor gave a sermon in which he prayed for "every homo that exists" to suffer "a slow, painful death" -- continuing a trend in which he and other right-wing pastors fixate on gay people when ranting about sin and redemption.
Duncan Urbanek, of Pure Words Baptist Church in southwest Houston, made the comments in a recent sermon.
A video clip of part of the speech was reposted online by Hemant Mehta, an activist and citizen journalist who runs the Friendly Atheist substack, which exposes hypocrisy by the religious Right.
In the video, Urbanek utilizes the well-worn trope of comparing gay people to pedophiles. "Hey, I'm going to pray for every pedophile," he says. "Every homo that exists, you know what my prayer for them is? They go straight to hell right now.
A bill introduced in Tennessee that would have forced drag performers to register with the state has stalled. But advocates are wary of declaring victory just yet, given the possibility that lawmakers could do an end-around the committee process and force a vote on the bill.
House Bill 30, sponsored by Rep. Clay Doggett (R-Pulaski), and its companion, Senate Bill 841, sponsored by Sen. Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald), would have required "adult cabaret entertainers" -- including go-go dancers, exotic dancers, topless dancers, and "male or female impersonators" -- to obtain a permit from a county-level "adult-oriented establishment board" in order to perform for compensation.
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