Gavin Pell’s family had no idea he had been bullied before he died.
On Thursday, they joined dozens of others at a demonstration outside Pearl River Central High School to speak out against bullying and to raise awareness about suicide and mental health.
Pell, a senior at PRC, died on Jan. 3 at the age of 18. His grandmother, Sheila Davis, confirmed Pell died by suicide. By speaking out, she said, his family hopes to encourage other young people to be open about their emotions and seek help when they need it.
Family members wore red T-shirts that included the word “Chef” with a spatula, because Gavin loved to cook, especially with his mother. Davis said he dreamed of owning a hotel where he would work as the head chef. He hoped to visit New York City one day.
The family didn’t know Gavin was being bullied until some of his classmates reached out after he died, Davis said. His attendance record was so important to him that he refused to miss class even when the family was headed to Nashville and wanted to leave early for a Kenny Chesney concert.
“He was just a sweetheart,” Davis said.
Demonstrators said Pell’s death should serve as a wake-up call to a school district they say has a major problem with bullying and accountability for students who hurt or mistreat others. Some attendees were parents whose children graduated years ago, but who still remember being punched during class transitions or mocked for their accents.
Jade Howell, who graduated from PRC in 2019, said she decided to organize the event because Gavin’s death was “truly crushing,” and she felt it ought to spark more attention and conversation around the issue of bullying. Howell said that she and friends of hers experienced bullying at PRC.
“We started the rally with the intention of letting others know that they’re not alone, their children are not alone,” Howell said.
Bullying is a common problem across American schools: one in five students surveyed say they have been bullied, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In an interview with the Sun Herald on Wednesday, Superintendent Alan Lumpkin said the Pearl River County School District does not have a culture of tolerating bullying.
“We have the outlets in place for students to be able to report those things,” said Lumpkin, who also attended Thursday’s gathering. “We investigate the reports. And we apply the appropriate measures according to the investigation.”
Bullying often not reported
After Gavin died, Howell wrote a Facebook post criticizing the school and student body for bullying Gavin had experienced, and for what she saw as the school’s inadequate reaction to his death. Other students, alumni and parents commented with their own experiences of bullying at the district and the high school. Some described witnessing Gavin being picked on.
Pell’s father, Johnny Pell, commented on the thread to ask for information about what his son had experienced.
“I am Gavins Dad,” he wrote. “Thank you all for your prayers and concerns it really means alot. Anyone who witnessed Gavin being bullied, please contact me. I need to know.”
Lumpkin told the Sun Herald that the school had received no reports of bullying regarding Gavin. School leaders met with Johnny Pell, Lumpkin said, and shared that information with him.
Lumpkin acknowledged that bullying is often not reported. Only 46% of students bullied at school tell surveyors that they reported the incident to adults.
“I can tell you to reduce bullying, you have to use the reporting system,” Lumpkin said. “It’s hard for people to address an issue that they know nothing about.”
Sheila Davis told the Sun Herald that Pell’s family had received calls from some of Pell’s classmates, describing how he was treated. The family joined the rally because they hope their story will help others.
“We can’t do anything for him, but if we can stop one person...” she said.
Students say bullying ‘actually quite a problem’
On Thursday afternoon, family members including Gavin’s parents and older brother stood in the strip of grass along the road outside the high school. Lumpkin and other staff members stood with the group. Some people wrote messages on blue ribbon they tied to the fence, where red plastic cups had been arranged to form Gavin’s name.
Three members of the concert band missed part of practice to attend the event. None of them knew Gavin Pell well, but they described a school community where difference of any kind can make someone a target for mockery.
“I’m out here because I think bullying is actually quite a problem at our school,” said Bryant Blanchard, a senior. “I’ve witnessed it a few times, and nothing gets done about it.”
Anti-gay slurs like the f-word are “common vocabulary,” said Evan Owens, a junior. Some students mock others for their clothes or the kind of car they drive. Kids in band or drama are labeled “geeks,” said junior Austin Guidry.
They noted the turnout from current students wasn’t what they had expected or hoped for. Most attendees were alumni or parents, with only about a dozen current students out of a student body of around 1,000.
Most of the school doesn’t believe bullying is a problem, Blanchard said. During the last period of the day before the rally, the conversation about it was generally negative.
“In my last class period, I heard numerous time that people said they would hurt us with their cars,” Blanchard said.
“I heard that, too,” Owens added.
Davis and other family members traded favorite memories of Gavin. He collected board games and liked to play with Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokemon cards. When he was younger, he had talked about becoming an inventor, but as he got older he focused his creative energies in the kitchen.
His grandmother remembered a dish he had made from scratch, shrimp alfredo with asparagus. His father recalled his cabbage with sausage. He’d pretty much taken over cooking at home, and even made his own donuts.
That trip to Nashville for which Gavin refused to miss school had been an annual tradition to visit one of Gavin’s uncles there. Davis marveled that a teenager had been excited for a road trip with his grandmother and great-grandmother, and that he always opened the car door for his great-grandmother. He was, she said, “a perfect gentleman.”
There were no warning signs before his death.
“Something triggered it,” Davis said.
If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). The lifeline provides free and confidential suicide prevention and supportive services.
Mississippi adolescents in crisis can also call 601-713-HELP (601-713-4357) or 601-366-9298 (en español).