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Photo courtesy of Leia Pierce

Why Did Jamel Myles Die?

When a nine-year-old Denver boy died by suicide last year, the tragedy gained national attention. In the immediate aftermath, however, the full story wasn't told. Why did this exuberant and loving young child die? And did the institutions that were supposed to help and support Jamel Myles and his family let them down?

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Jamel Myles was everywhere. Around the apartment he shared with his mother and two sisters, traces of the nine-year-old were ubiquitous: empty Ramen noodle packages on the kitchen counter, blankets and chairs from his makeshift forts pressed into corners of the family room. He was not what you would call a neat boy. He drew tiny boxes on walls, red and blue blobs above the baseboards. He pasted a rainbow unicorn sticker with the words “Love Dream Create” on the white tile in the shower. He scrawled his name in blue marker across the chipped façade on a bedroom drawer—five wobbly letters written by a boy marking his existence: J-a-m-e-l.

He was a good kid. Jamel loved parks. The family would visit different ones around the metro area—Aurora’s City Park and east Denver’s Lindsley were two favorites. He’d ride his orange Huffy bicycle past the massive oak and cottonwood trees, then drop it with a ca-chunk onto the asphalt and run toward the older boys shooting hoops on the basketball court.

Jamel loved anime cartoons. He loved putting on his mother’s makeup. He loved video games. He loved taking selfies. He loved making YouTube videos. He loved dressing in his sisters’ clothes. He loved skateboarding. He loved reading. He loved the book Wit and Wisdom from the Peanut Butter Gang. He loved the words on page 112: “You shouldn’t try to do 15 cartwheels in a row. You should never jump off your top bunk and expect to fly.” He loved his mother and his sisters and his grandmother.

He loved to draw. Jamel could spend hours with his colored pencils and paper, disappearing into a world of his own creation. He drew his family members and cars; houses and mountaintops. This past summer, his mother came home with a pad of sketching paper, bound together with spiral rings. Jamel immediately began filling the empty pages.

One day, he picked out a sky blue colored pencil, opened the pad to a middle page, and started to draw. He drew a stick figure of himself, one of his blue arms stretched out, reaching toward the middle of the page. He drew his mother, blue hair cascading down the sides of her blue, circular head, two blue pin-prick dots for eyes. Between them, he drew a blue heart. Below the drawing, he added a note: “I love you mom. I’m sorry I left you.”

About 100 people attended Jamel’s early September memorial at Lindsley Park, where he’d played with his sisters just a few weeks earlier. There was no eulogy. As she sat underneath a picnic awning, Jamel’s mother, Leia Pierce, watched family and friends pass like shadows around her. Purple and silver balloons lolled in the breeze. People offered hugs, told her how sorry they were, that they were there for her. Whatever you need, they said. A 10-foot banner was unrolled on one of the picnic tables, and it soon filled with messages to Jamel: “You came and lit up our world!” and “You are missed, Sweet Boy.”

It had been nearly two weeks since his death by suicide, and Jamel’s story had become national news. “9-Year-Old Boy Killed Himself After Being Bullied, His Mom Says,” the New York Times headline read. “A mother says her 9-year-old came out as gay—then killed himself after schoolmates bullied him,” reported the Washington Post. Jamel’s story had instantly come to encapsulate the terror of what it meant to be a parent and a child today; it highlighted the evils of ignorance and hatred and our nation’s suicide epidemic.

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Nearly 45,000 deaths by suicide occurred in the United States in 2016—more than double the number of homicides in this country—making it the 10th leading cause of death among Americans. For people in the United States between the ages of 15 and 34, suicide is the second leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While deaths by suicide across the country have increased dramatically among people ages 10 and older, the idea that it could strike a fourth-grader seemed unfathomable. A total of 60 children nine years old or younger died by suicide in America between 2006 and 2016, meaning that even amid a national crisis, Jamel Myles was an anomaly.

“They say it gets easier, but it gets harder every day,” Leia told a local Fox31 reporter who was at the park for the memorial. “No mother should be burying her child.” Life, before and after, had been unrelenting for the single mother. Rent for her $1,400-a-month, two-bedroom east Denver apartment was almost due, and she might have to borrow cash from her mother to get her and her two daughters through the next few weeks. She couldn’t concentrate, which made returning to her $11-an-hour job as a hardware store cashier an impossibility. She’d been fighting with her ex-boyfriend over their son’s cremated remains. Online, she battled critics and trolls who questioned her abilities as a parent, who wondered why a mother would let her son put on fake fingernails before the first day of school.

Leia Pierce, Jamel Myles’ mother, still carries his bumblebee stuffed animal close to her heart. Photo by James Stukenberg

Leia felt like a failure. Her 14-year-old daughter, Shayla, had just begun high school and needed support during the transition. Ten-year-old Taniece, who’d been a grade ahead of Jamel at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School, was about to start online classes and needed help with her curriculum. Leia needed to find a family therapist for the girls, but all she could think about was how her family didn’t exist anymore. On top of that, Denver Human Services (DHS) wanted to interview her, to ask questions about her children’s “home environment.” She hadn’t slept more than an hour or two any night since Jamel’s death. She was struggling to eat. Since Jamel died, she’d carried one of his stuffed animals—a yellow-and-black bumblebee—in the neck of her T-shirt, near her heart.

Denver Police Department detectives investigating the bullying claim Leia had made were at the memorial and offered condolences to Jamel’s family. Two of Taniece’s teachers from Shoemaker also were there. Jamel’s classmates had written condolence cards, but Leia had yet to receive them. Tom Boasberg, then the Denver Public Schools (DPS) superintendent, had phoned Leia to tell her he was deeply sorry for her loss and how special her son was. He called him “Jamal.”

Photo courtesy of Leia Pierce

He was Jamel, the Arabic word for “handsome” or “beautiful.” With olive skin, a slender face, and a cap of curly brown hair, he was an arresting boy. Jamel suffered from fetal distress in the hours leading up to his birth; Leia’s doctor said she’d made it to the hospital just in time to avoid any long-term issues. Years later, when Leia would look into her son’s chestnut eyes, she couldn’t help but feel fortunate. Leia saw a piece of herself in all of her kids: Shayla was fierce but sensitive, unrelenting and quick with a comeback. Taniece was eclectic and strong-willed. Jamel was the youngest of the three, the family’s heart, the love that bound them.

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Leia’s friends would watch Jamel play; they’d marvel that he wanted to include other children, that he wanted everyone to feel welcome and have a friend. “He always wanted to know how people were feeling,” Shayla says. “He was like this little gentleman boy, always concerned about someone else.” His friends thought he was brave, the way he’d confidently walk up to teenagers at the park and ask for tips on how to ride a skateboard. He was the comic; Shayla called him the family’s “hype man.” Jamel would hop atop the coffee table and dance, swinging his hips and clapping his hands while the others laughed and cheered along. He’d fire Silly String across the room or jump up and down on a mini trampoline. He ate dry Ramen as a snack. He’d pull out taco shells from a kitchen cabinet, then fill them with sour cream and top them with cinnamon, a quintessential Jamel concoction.

He was polite. Leia took pride when he’d hold the door open for a stranger. He spoke about world events in the way children try to make sense of very difficult problems. One day, he announced he was joining the military. “I’ll be the Army of one,” he told his mother. “All they need is me. I can use my beautiful words.” Some days he wanted to be a doctor. Other days he wanted to be a YouTube star.

Photo courtesy of Leia Pierce

Jamel wore Taniece’s glittery plastic heels. You couldn’t pull him out of a Disney princess dress. He gravitated toward Barbie dolls at the store. He’d streak his mother’s makeup across his face and video himself dancing around the apartment. When he was six or seven, Jamel told Shayla that he liked other boys. “And…?” Shayla replied. In July 2018, he came out to his mother and his grandmother. “You’re my son, and I love you,” Leia told him. Jamel never seemed happier.

Leia tried to do her best for them, but DHS showed up at her door at least four times over the years in response to reports of neglect or child abuse. At one of Jamel’s former schools, police questioned her about a cut Jamel had gotten on his arm after slipping and putting his hand through a window at his grandmother’s house. They asked about how he’d hurt himself and how he’d gotten stitches. Nothing ever came of it.

They lived in at least a half-dozen rentals across the city after Jamel’s birth. Jamel, Shayla, and Taniece attended six different schools among them in four consecutive years as Leia searched for affordable homes that were better and safer than their previous ones. Yet people always seemed quick to admonish her, to tell her all the ways she was messing up. They saw a now 32-year-old woman, who’d been a teenage mother, with three children by two different men. They didn’t know that after she had Shayla, Leia home-schooled herself and graduated high school. They didn’t know she’d gotten financial aid and trained to be a dental assistant. They didn’t know that when she slipped on an icy sidewalk at a bus stop and broke her ankle so badly it required immediate surgery, all she worried about was calling her mother so she could pick up the kids that night. Yes, she was loud. Yes, she could get angry when someone questioned her. Yes, she had tattoos running down her arms. “But she was a mom before everything else,” Leia’s mother, Jacque Miller, says. “She loved those kids more than anything in the world.”

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Unit 27 at the Hampden Heights Apartments was supposed to be their refuge, a new start. The bathroom tub’s faucet ran constantly, and the upstairs neighbors rattled the ceiling with music all night, but this was their place, and they were together. That’s all that mattered. Taniece slept on a mattress on the floor in the small room off the kitchen. Jamel and Shayla took one of the two back bedrooms, with twin closets and a picture window overlooking the parking lot and a sea of 1970s-era apartment buildings. They pushed their black futons together against a wall. Leia slept in the bedroom across the hallway, with crooked metal blinds and a blanket pinned over the window.

Although she was struggling financially, Leia did her best to make things fun for the kids. She’d come home at night after a long shift at the hardware store and grab soap bubble guns, turn on a black light, and play with her kids until luminous colorful streaks ran across the walls. After she cashed her paycheck every other Thursday, she’d set aside money for bills, then gas her old minivan and head out with her kids on an “adventure,” spending whatever was left on pizza and laser tag and movies at the discount theater down the street. When she bought Jamel’s orange bicycle at Walmart, she let him ride it through the store to the checkout area, then out the door. Some nights, her son would pile into bed next to her, followed by Taniece and Shayla. They’d pack in tightly and talk and giggle. “Nothing will ever tear us apart,” Leia told her children.

She enrolled Jamel and Taniece at Joe Shoemaker Elementary School, about a mile from the apartment, and they started in January 2018. Leia had been encouraged when she’d visited Shoemaker a couple of weeks earlier. After looking around the school, Jamel seemed excited to continue the third grade there, to meet teachers and new friends. Leia imagined her kids staying at Shoemaker until they made the transition to middle school. When she returned home after the visit, Leia was certain she’d never made a better decision.

The transition for Taniece, however, was difficult. In early February, Leia called the school and complained that her daughter was being bullied. A brief mention of the call was made in Taniece’s file. By late winter, Taniece was telling her mother she didn’t want to go to school: She was tired, her head hurt, she didn’t feel well.

The Shoemaker staff took the unusual step of allowing Taniece to find Jamel when she was upset. At home, the two often argued over games and their favorite YouTube celebrities, but at Shoemaker, Jamel became her protector. “I felt safe with him,” Taniece says. She sat next to her brother in his classroom until she felt ready to rejoin her own class. “The school couldn’t solve the problems with Taniece, so they gave up and had a nine-year-old boy do their work for them,” says Jessica Peck, a Denver attorney who is representing the family. “That’s unacceptable and unfair. To be put in that position, Jamel must have felt like the weight of the world was on his shoulders.”

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In a statement to 5280, Shoemaker’s principal Christine Fleming wrote that her school has “a robust anti-bullying curriculum called Crew that has been woven into the fabric of daily life at school. Character is one of our main pillars of student achievement. In support of that pillar, every class has at least three 30-40 minute sessions per week of designated Crew time. These sessions are specifically focused on character, kindness, relationships and empathy—building blocks that prevent bullying. Not only is this built into our routine structure, but it is a way of being at Shoemaker and extends far beyond a typical anti-bullying program.”

On February 26, Jamel punched a boy at school. A two-sentence note about the event was recorded in Jamel’s school file; Leia and Jacque later said the incident was related to a student teasing Taniece. The fight was referred to Shoemaker’s restorative justice program—which allows students to work out issues face-to-face in a supervised environment—but there’s no mention in the file regarding discipline.

Linda Campbell, Shoemaker’s restorative practices coordinator, says she cannot recall specifics about how the issue between the two students was resolved. Campbell “definitely knew” Jamel, in part because of several restorative justice sessions he had with children at the school. “When I saw him, it was boys being feisty with each other,” she says. “I would call them ‘tussles.’ Kids hit each other in the face all the time.” Although she’d seen Jamel often, she says she had “no concerns” about the boy and that the school incidents had never seemed serious enough to warrant follow-ups beyond the standard procedure. “Jamel was a sweet kid,” she says. “I didn’t usually think of him as the aggressor, but we all have a boiling point.”

One night in their apartment bedroom, Jamel confided to Shayla that he was frustrated. He was sad and angry and didn’t know what to do. He was overwhelmed. Jamel cried. Shayla tried to calm her brother.

“You need to tell Mom,” she said.

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“I can’t,” he replied.

“He didn’t want to put that on our mom,” Shayla says now. “He saw her and how hard she was working and everything that she’d been through to raise us, and then everything that was going on [at school]. He didn’t think it was worth stressing her out over another thing, so he hid his feelings. He wanted to protect all of us.”

Over the summer, Jamel played games on the small blue HP computer his grandmother had purchased for the family. He liked a game called Roblox, which allows users to create their own virtual worlds. He took photos of his builds—a convenience store, a tree-lined street—and saved them. He played Minecraft. He read celebrity gossip: “Kardashians Are NOT Happy With Blac Chyna” and “Jake Paul Gets a New Roommate.” He searched YouTube for an animated comic called “Gay Love Story.” He downloaded a song called “If I Had a Chicken.” He recorded himself rapping like a chicken: “If you want to be a true chicken, you’ve got to beak, beak, beak….” He recorded himself asking how many people lived on Earth. He recorded himself saying he had the best hair. He recorded his excitement about learning that he’d get to cook a breakfast of hash browns, eggs, and French toast with his grandmother.

His favorite musician was the hip-hop artist XXXTentacion, who was murdered in June during an apparent robbery. Jamel set a drawing of the singer as the computer’s home screen, the words “Numb” and “Alone” tattooed on the rapper’s face. Jamel searched YouTube for the XXXTentacion song “Save Me” 148 times.

Hello, from the dark side in
Does anybody here wanna be my friend?
Want it all to end
Tell me when the fuck is it all gon’ end?

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Jamel begged his mother to give him a shot at becoming a YouTube celebrity. He’d already filmed himself showing off his Pokemon collection and wanted to create more videos. “Do you know how much I can make?” he asked Leia. “Millions!” He wanted to buy his mother a new car. He wanted to move her out of the apartment and buy her a house.

In late June, the foursome took a trip to visit a friend, their last big family outing before school started in August. They traveled through New Mexico, and Jamel watched the desert oranges and browns whoosh past his car window, mesmerized by the plateaued mountains that looked nothing like home. The family spent three days in Arizona. Jamel played in the hotel pool. At night, he danced on his bed in their room. Leia took the kids through Utah, then into Wyoming. They stopped in Cheyenne, and the kids agreed that the mall smelled like freshly baked cupcakes. Leia bought Jamel a stuffed animal bumblebee. He held it in his arms that night when he returned to the apartment and fell asleep in his mother’s bed.

A few days before fourth grade began at Shoemaker, Jamel was electric. He’d met his new teacher at an open house in late August and told him he wanted to sit near the front of the room, so he could hear better. He didn’t like the classroom’s stool seats. He wanted to use a regular chair. “I fidget,” he explained. Jamel appeared self-aware, responsible. “He knew how to ask for what he needed, and he wasn’t shy about it,” Leia says. “His confidence was through the roof.”

Leia took Jamel and Taniece to Target one night for markers, colored pencils, and everything else they had on their supply lists. Jamel piled paper and pens into the cart. He picked up some books to read during in-class breaks. Leia had never seen her son so excited about schoolwork.

Jamel asked for fake fingernails, and Leia agreed. She was never one to restrict her kids’ expressions of independence. Leia worried about the long-term damage to their relationship if she said she supported Jamel but then told him to be like everyone else. He shouldn’t have to hide who he is, she thought. The day before school, Jamel applied the nails.

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After the first couple of days of school, Leia noticed that Jamel wasn’t himself. Initially, she thought her son was simply adjusting to the early wake-ups following a summer of sleeping in. After a few days, she asked Jamel what was going on at Shoemaker. He referred to students who hadn’t accepted the new Jamel, Leia says, and how it seemed like he was now a target. Jamel had confided earlier to his sisters that he liked a boy at school. Did he tell the boy? Leia wondered. Had he opened up to his classmates about his sexuality? Jamel wouldn’t say.

After the fourth day of school, he was in the back seat of Jacque’s car. Jamel often sat in the back middle seat, but this time, he was behind Jacque. She recognized that he was unusually quiet.

“What’s up?” she asked.

“I had a bad day. I lost my temper,” he said.

Jamel explained to his grandmother that he was doing class work with a friend when one of the girls in the room pulled his hair and kicked his chair, and that he then fell to the floor.

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“I pushed her,” Jamel said.

He was angry and hurt. On top of that, he told Jacque, the girl told the teacher that Jamel had shoved her. He tried to explain to the teacher what had happened, but he said the teacher wouldn’t listen. He felt picked on, singled out. If he wanted, Jacque promised she and Leia would talk to the teacher in the morning.

At the apartment later, Jamel saw Leia on her computer in her bedroom. He gave her a hug. “Love you,” he said.

“Love you,” she said.

Jamel found Shayla in the bathroom. She was dyeing Taniece’s hair. Jamel said he was mad about how he’d reacted to the bullying but that he was even angrier about what had happened to him. “It wasn’t my fault,” he told Shayla. She could see how upset her brother was, how much he wanted to talk. She listened patiently to his complaints, then told him to lie down. “You’ll feel better,” she said. “Go relax and we’ll talk more when you get up.”

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Jamel went to the kitchen to get some Ramen. Then he walked down the hallway and into his bedroom. He left the door slightly open.

In the weeks after Jamel’s death, someone from Joe Shoemaker Elementary School called the Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline. The caller alleged that Leia hadn’t yet gotten mental health help for her children or for herself. DHS opened an inquiry, which was assigned to Arthur Trass, a 49-year-old veteran social worker. He began reviewing the family’s case file, a list of reports that included notes from other caseworkers. He went through the files and saw the allegation of child abuse from Jamel’s cut arm four years earlier and the other police visits. In those instances, Trass says, the incidents had been investigated and were deemed either unfounded or inconclusive.

When he finally visited Leia’s home, clothes were on the apartment floor and dirty dishes were stacked in the kitchen. It was hardly the worst he’d seen. “You could tell she was struggling financially,” Trass says. He interviewed Leia, Jacque, Shayla, and Taniece. Leia, Trass remembers, looked “completely devastated, which is what you’d expect.” He talked to Leia at the kitchen table. She cried several times while she answered Trass’ questions: Yes, she and her daughters planned to talk to a therapist. She felt sad. Yes, she could care for her children.

“She was dealing with the loss of a very young child, and she was handling it at her own pace, but there was nothing alarming,” Trass remembers. “I didn’t see that she was failing to protect her family.” He talked to Jacque, who said Leia and the kids planned to go to therapy as soon as possible. “I found all of them very sincere and believable,” says Trass, who saw the family multiple times and spoke regularly with Leia by phone. After a few weeks, he wrote up his findings. The call from Shoemaker to DHS had implied that Leia was ignoring her children’s needs and that Taniece might be in danger, but Trass saw something different. “It seemed like the initial report was made because the school wanted to cover its ass,” he says. “They were shifting blame to Leia.”

Trass reported that the allegation was unfounded. Around the same time, a second call had come in from Denver Children’s Advocacy Center. Trass’ bosses asked him to talk with Leia and Jacque again. He complained to his bosses that the repeated questions seemed unnecessary. “We were beating down her door and breathing down her neck,” he says. “All these people wanted to point at Leia and say she was not on top of things, that she was negligent and ignorant,” says Trass, who resigned from his job at DHS in October. “She was a mother grieving over the death of her young son.”

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In response to an interview request from 5280, DHS provided a statement that said: “We respect the privacy of the families we serve and cannot rebut or disclose any information related to them or their involvement with DHS. Generally speaking, when we receive concerns about a child’s safety or wellbeing, we first work to determine if the concern rises to the legal level for an assessment. If it does, then we are charged with asking the difficult questions, as respectfully and empathetically as possible, and determining whether the preponderance of evidence suggests that an incident occurred. Our goal is to help the family address any issues in the home, keep them together and help them grow stronger as a family unit. When that is not possible, then we continue to work with the family until they can be reunified. The child welfare system is rehabilitative, not punitive. Our goal is to help support families and also keep kids safe.”

After Trass left the department, Leia’s file was passed to another DHS caseworker; Leia says she has not been contacted by DHS since then. By this past fall, Leia and her daughters had been seeing therapists for nearly a month. Leia was eating regularly. Jacque had found her a new job in food service that Leia could begin when she was ready. Taniece started her schoolwork online. Leia and Jacque made sure Shayla was getting to high school. Leia also decided she wouldn’t renew her lease and would move in with Jacque and Leia’s step-father in the Denver home they owned.

The Denver Police Department closed the case on the bullying claims and returned Jamel’s computer and Leia’s cell phone to the family this past fall. Leia appreciated the work the investigators had done. DPS, meanwhile, was in the midst of concluding its own investigation. During a phone conversation in September, a district official told Leia that DPS was originally unable to substantiate the claim that Jamel had been bullied because of his sexual orientation but that “someone has come forward.” The district would not give Leia specifics. “We are not permitted to discuss the facts of a formal review of a student due to privacy laws,” DPS spokeswoman Jessie Smiley told 5280 in October. “The district is committed to a thorough and complete review of the situation and is always committed to continual improvement based on this tragic event.”

Smiley offered to make two district experts available to 5280 for a conference call interview about anti-bullying and restorative justice programs within DPS. After one meeting was postponed because Smiley didn’t call in, a second meeting was scheduled for the next day. One of the experts—Eldridge Greer, the district’s associate chief of student equity and opportunity—failed to call. The other, Ellen Kelty, DPS’ director of student equity and opportunity, declined to be interviewed when she learned this article would be about Jamel Myles, saying that reporting on his death could “trigger” other children to die by suicide. “I don’t think anything good can come of this,” she said.

The following day, Smiley sent an email to 5280, repeating Kelty’s concerns: “In general, research indicates that mental illness is the primary variable in suicide.”

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“Denver Public Schools is deflecting responsibility by essentially throwing up its hands and saying, ‘It’s all in the person’s brain, so there’s nothing we can do about it,’ which is not a helpful way to begin this conversation at all,” says Dr. Stacey Freedenthal, an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work who studies suicide assessment and intervention. “By focusing on mental illness, the district is shifting the problem onto the child, rather than making it about larger social forces. In essence, they’re letting themselves off the hook when, in reality, we need to do better as a society.” In its paper, The Relationship Between Bullying and Suicide: What We Know and What it Means for Schools, the CDC reported in 2014 that while many social forces are involved, “ANY involvement with bullying behavior is one stressor which may significantly contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that raise the risk of suicide.” The CDC report added: “It is correct to say that involvement in bullying, along with other risk factors, increases the chance that a young person will engage in suicide-related behaviors.”

On November 19, Leia got a call from Elizabeth Battle, DPS’ manager of family constituency services. She said the district’s investigation had concluded and she wanted to share the findings with Leia in person. Battle added that she was “a little concerned what could come of a news story” about Jamel. “I guess I just want to tell you that as a human,” Battle said. “It’s scary to put the whole process up in the news.”

“It’s scary to lose a child,” Leia replied.

The next day, Leia and Jacque waited for Battle at a south Denver coffeeshop. Leia pulled her phone out of her pocket and kissed a photo of her son. She rested her head on the table.

When Battle arrived, she handed Leia a letter written by Fleming, Shoemaker’s principal. It was two pages. The district planned to send it to Shoemaker parents soon, Battle said, but she wanted Leia to see it first. Leia read it silently: “As we have worked to heal from the tragic loss of one of our students early this year, we have been extremely grateful to see so many families showing their support and love for our community,” the letter began. “This tragedy has hit us all deeply, and we have heard many of you ask: what can we do to prevent a tragedy like this and how can we move forward?”

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The district, the letter continued, “conducted a thorough formal review” of Jamel’s case that involved interviews with “dozens of students, teachers, staff, and family members…. Although we will sadly never know the full truth regarding this student’s experience, the formal review revealed shock, surprise, and heartbreak that this tragedy would happen to a beloved Shoemaker student without any apparent warning signs at school.” The letter closed by saying DPS was working closely with organizations to get a “national perspective to review the District’s anti-bullying and suicide prevention measures and provide recommended improvements or changes to LGBTQ+ policies and practices at every school.”

The logic of the letter, in Leia’s mind, was problematic for several reasons. If the school found no warning signs, then why did the district still need to review its bullying measures? Why had the school focused entirely on LGBTQ+ bullying and not on other bullying she and Jacque reported to the school? Leia felt sick and confused after reading the letter. She wasn’t sure what to expect from the meeting with Battle, but it definitely wasn’t this. “What am I supposed to do now?” she said later that night. “Why do they keep hurting my family?”

The afternoon Leia moved out of her apartment, she placed bags filled with blankets and Jamel’s books into the darkened family room. The white dresser with Jamel’s name on it was pushed against a wall next to the fireplace, waiting for Jacque and two friends to move it to a truck outside. Leia ran a hand across the top of the dresser and opened one of the chipped drawers. In pencil across the wood was a reminder her son had written to himself: “Jamel your Pokemon cards are in the cubby at school.”

Since her son’s death, it seemed everyone had advice. She’d been told how life would get easier once more time passed. She was told to pray. She was told to go back to work. She was told to get rid of Jamel’s belongings. She was told to keep them. She was told to stand up for Jamel. She was told to move on. She was told to hang in, that her two girls needed her.

She’d been told how well she was doing, considering the circumstances, and that moving out of this apartment and into her mother’s house would be a fresh start for her and her daughters—another new beginning, but now with just the three of them. Leia found herself dreaming about her son, brief, vivid moments when he’d tell her to keep fighting. Now she wondered if she was giving up. Would leaving the apartment also mean leaving behind important moments of Jamel’s life? Was she leaving her son behind? Leia clung to everything: the colored blobs on the walls, the unicorn sticker in the bathroom, the school lunch Jamel stored in a plastic Campbell’s soup container that she couldn’t bring herself to throw out.

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Jamel’s grandmother, Jacque Miller, this past fall. Photo by James Stukenberg

Leia walked through the apartment’s shadows; light filtered through aluminum blinds. Taniece was asleep in Leia’s bedroom. Shayla was at school. Leia pulled open the kitchen drawers, though she’d cleaned them out days ago. She swept one of the bathrooms, though she’d already done that, too. She tried to scrape gunk off the kitchen floor. No use. Leia put her hands on the top of her head and took a deep breath. “It’s like I’m frozen in place and the world keeps going,” she said. She stepped into her son’s bedroom.

The two mattresses were gone, and Leia could see pennies and dimes strewn across the brown carpet. Jamel’s Jordan-brand stickers were pasted on the far wall. A stuffed pink unicorn Leia bought Shayla for her birthday was in one of the corners. “It’s a mess in here,” she said.

In the days after Jamel’s death, Leia had slowly taken over the room. She couldn’t sleep, so she’d come here, sit at the edge of one of the mattresses, and think and cry. A small cardboard box was filled with her cigarette butts. Virgin Mary prayer candles were on the floor next to Jamel’s Pokemon cards and several notes Leia had written to her son: “You are my everything”; “I promise I will walk hand-in-hand with you”; “I really need you.” She stood in the room for five minutes, then 10.

Jacque walked in. “Hey, Leia,” she said softly. “We still have a lot to do here, OK? We can get this done, all right?”

“I know. Just give me a second.”

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Jacque pulled a vacuum into the dining room off the kitchen while the two friends gathered boxes to bring outside to the truck. Leia picked up loose change on the carpet and then went back to work in the bathroom.

A few minutes later, she burst into the hallway, screaming.

“Where’s his bowl?” she demanded, rushing toward the kitchen. “That was the last bowl Jamel ate out of! Where is it? What did you do with it? Oh, God, did you throw it out? Mom, did you throw out his bowl?”

“I saw a bowl on the counter. Was that the one, honey? I don’t think I—”

Leia stomped into the kitchen and saw the black bowl. She snatched it, tears in her eyes. “I’m so sick of this!” she said. Leia put a hand to her face. She raced to the bathroom and shut the door behind her.

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The apartment was quiet. Jamel’s dresser was gone now, outside in the truck. His red and blue blobs had been wiped off the walls. His lunch, chili, was in the soup container and on a table, waiting to be packed with some books. Soon, there would be no sign of the boy in Unit 27.

Leia stayed behind the bathroom’s closed door. Jacque sighed. She turned on the vacuum and got back to work. The landlord would be expecting the keys soon.

Summer Guide

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