When adults fail

October 08, 2003

THEY CALLED him "Stink."

At school in Meriden, Conn., no child would sit near him. Others beat, stomped, spat on and choked him because he was odd and offensive, a state report documents. He rarely bathed or brushed his teeth; he wore mismatched and filthy clothes to school when he went, which wasn't often; and when he was there, he'd defecate or urinate in his pants so he'd be sent home. One teacher reported that when she passed 12-year-old J. Daniel Scruggs in the hallway, she'd always cover her mouth and nose with her hand.

With an IQ in the "superior" range but with a history of slovenliness, learning disabilities and outbursts symptomatic of emotional disturbance, little Daniel - who weighed only 63 pounds when he hanged himself with a necktie in the closet of his disheveled bedroom - lost life's battle because the adults in his life failed to help him.

"No one took responsibility for the child's death. Everyone was responsible," according to the Connecticut Child Fatality Review Panel. He had not wanted to return to school at the end of the winter break to face the merciless teasing, his family said. In fact, by his death on Jan. 2, 2002, he'd already skipped 45 days of school, spending them unsupervised in a home police described as squalid: dirty clothes piled up to several feet high in many rooms and the bathtub; mold in the coffee pot; filth everywhere.

A jury Monday convicted his grieving mother on a felony count of putting the child at risk by maintaining an unhealthy, unsafe home - and her attorneys vowed to appeal the controversial decision, which to some critics implies that his death somehow resulted from her neglect of the home.

No one will ever know if his fate would have been different had his home and school environments been perfectly safe. But we do know that his cry for help wasn't answered in time by the adults and agencies who should have protected him.

Perhaps now it will help others.

A new Connecticut law directs schools to develop anti-bullying programs: Schools now must do a better job of identifying and disciplining the bullies and aiding the victims, who need to know that the adults can be trusted not to blame them for attracting the disdain of their peers.

Bullying is not a rite of passage. It is potentially dangerous, delivering shocks that some children cannot absorb or deflect.

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