Sirdeaner Walker, 44, is ferociously protective of her four children. So when her 11-year-old son Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover complained to her last September of being bullied by students at the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, Massachusetts, for “acting gay,” she did something about it. She spoke to his principal, teachers and guidance counselor and became more active in the Parent Teachers Organization. But the teasing and threats continued and Carl started acting out in school, becoming increasingly fearful and felt even more alienated.
On Monday, April 6, everyone learned just how serious the situation had become. Walker found her little boy with an extension cord wrapped around his neck, hanging from the third floor rafter of their home. Peter J. Daboul, chairman of the Board for New Leadership Charter School, released a statement shortly after Carl’s death saying, “I plan to initiate an investigation into the facts and the allegations to ensure that the school responded in an appropriate manner.” School officials did not respond to our calls for comment, but the school has sponsored a carnation drive and a walk in Carl’s honor.
In the letter left behind for his mother, Carl explained that he simply couldn’t take it anymore. He apologized, expressing his love for his family and bequeathing his Pokéman cards to his little brother—a sign of his youth but an even bigger indication of the senselessness of this act. Approximately 4,500 lives are lost every year as suicide has become the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just a few days shy of Carl’s twelfth birthday (April 17), his mother is speaking out. Astonishingly calm and with great resolve, Sirdeaner Walker spoke to ESSENCE.com about what she believes the school did wrong, Carl’s final days and the question that will forever loom in her mind—why?
ESSENCE.COM: What was your son like?
SIRDEANER WALKER: He loved to go to school and he loved to learn. I always have my kids involved in different activities. Carl was a Boy Scout, he played on the 5A football team, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Center basketball team and the Holy Name soccer team. He was pretty athletic. Some of the kids would tease him about not being that good at basketball or football, but I told Carl as long as you enjoyed the sport, it doesn’t matter what they say. Just go out there and have fun. And that’s what he tried to do.
ESSENCE.COM: When was the first time he came to you and said, Mom, I’m having some problems at school?
WALKER: It was very early on in the school year. He told me that he was being called names and the kids were saying, “You’re gay; you act like a girl.” I never raised him to fight or hit back. I talked to his teacher to get to the bottom of it. I told Carl he was going to have to give his teacher the names [of the kids] but he was so afraid because he didn’t want to be labeled as a snitch, and if they were punished, they would come back at him.
ESSENCE.COM: You’ve received a lot of support from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. Do you believe Carl was struggling with his sexuality?
WALKER: No, there was no indication of that. Carl was just 11 years old. I don’t even think he reached puberty yet. His voice hadn’t started to change. This is bigger than a gay issue. In fact, I’m worried about one of Carl’s friends who is being picked on as well because she’s overweight. That’s why it’s bigger than a gay issue. These kids will tease you over anything.
ESSENCE.COM: At what point did you go to the administration and ask for help?
WALKER: It was around October last year when we started to see a change in his behavior. We had weekly appointments with the guidance counselor and she set up a grid so each teacher could report on his behavior. Every time I approached his teachers when there was a problem, I told them we can come up with a plan; I will punish him at home. He really liked the Nintendo DS, so I started taking away things that he really liked until I started to see some improvement in school. About a month ago, I got a call from the school and they told me that he was being disruptive in class. When I asked Carl about it he said there was a sixth-grade gang that threatened to kill him and beat him up and that he was scared.
ESSENCE.COM: What happened on the day Carl died?
WALKER: Usually I drive Carl to the bus stop, but that morning I had an early conference call at work. When I got home that evening, he was sitting on the couch with his backpack. He has a big, rolling backpack that apparently knocked into a TV stand in his classroom that day. Carl told me that the TV [accidently] hit a student and she went off saying, “I’m going to kill you.” And that’s how it started. Carl came home very upset thinking he was going to be suspended. I started making supper and then he just went upstairs. I called his name and he didn’t answer me. I went up to get him and that’s when I found him.
ESSENCE.COM: You decided to donate his eyes and heart valve. Why did you make that decision?
WALKER: I thought about Carl, and he was always helping people. Last Fourth of July, we had a big cookout and Carl got hurt riding his bike. I asked him why he wasn’t wearing his helmet. My relatives told me he had given his helmet to his cousin to wear. So when it came to making the organ donation, it wasn’t a hard decision at all because that’s the type of kid he was. I know that’s what he would’ve wanted me to do.
ESSENCE.COM: There were hundreds of people who came out to Carl’s funeral. What did that mean to you?
WALKER: I just felt so good. It was a celebration of his life. I knew that if God brought me through breast cancer, he will bring me through this and that’s what I hold on to. I know that God has something good planned through all this. I know Carl loved the Lord. I know that he loved his life.
ESSENCE.COM: What are you hoping will come from Carl’s passing?
WALKER: Eventually I want to study the policies on bullying for charter schools in Springfield. I’m concerned because the school operates through a board of directors. The Department of Education should have control over charter schools. Right now it seems like everybody is following their own guidelines.
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number is 1-800-273-TALK (273-8255).