The free spirit of Jaheem Herrera is evident in the family portraits in his DeKalb County apartment.
The 11-year-old enjoyed dancing and drawing, and the easy smile he flashed for the photographers was genuine, his stepfather said Monday night.
A photograph of Jaheem Herrera, 11, hangs above a poster on the front door of the family’s Dekalb apartment, all part of a makeshift shrine to the dead boy.
On Thursday afternoon, after returning home from Dunaire Elementary School, Jaheem quietly went into his room and hanged himself. His 10-year-old sister, Yerralis, also a fifth-grader, discovered Jaheem’s dead body.
“His sister was screaming, ‘Get him down, get him down,’” said Norman Keene, who helped raise Jaheem since the boy was two years old.
When Keene got to the room, he saw Yerralis holding her brother, trying to remove the pressure of the noose her brother had fashioned with a fabric belt.
Jaheem was bullied relentlessly, his family said. Keene said the family knew the boy was a target, but until his death they didn’t understand the scope.
“We’d ask him, ‘Jaheem, what’s wrong with you?’” Keene recalled. “He’d never tell us.”
He didn’t want his sister to tell, either. She witnessed much of the bullying, and many times rose to her brother’s defense, Keene said.
“They called him gay and a snitch,” his stepfather said. “All the time they’d call him this.”
In an interview with WSB-TV, the boy’s mother, Masika Bermudez, also said her son was being bullied at school. She said she had complained to the school.
She said she asked him about the bullying Thursday when he came home from school and he denied it. She sent him to his room to calm down. It was the last time she would see him alive.
Bermudez told WSB she talked to Jaheem’s best friend about the situation last week.
“He said, ‘Yes ma’am. He told me that he’s tired of everybody always messing with him in school. He is tired of telling the teachers and the staff, and they never do anything about the problems. So, the only way out is by killing himself,’” Bermudez told WSB.
Earlier this month the suicide of a Massachusetts boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover — who suffered taunts that he was gay — attracted national attention.
He was also 11. His mother found him hanging from an extension cord in the family’s home.
Jaheem was excelling academically, Keene said, adapting quickly to his new home. The family moved to the Avondale Estates area less than a year ago from St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Last winter, his grandmother died from cancer. She was living with the family at the time.
His grandfather returned to St. Croix after his wife’s passing. He’s taking Jaheem’s death especially hard.
“He says he has nothing to live for now,” Keene said. The family had planned a trip home in June. They’ll be returning next Monday instead to bury their 11-year-old son.