A family in Southwest Philadelphia is mourning the loss of an 11-year-old who they say died by suicide after he and his brother faced constant bullying at their school.
Phillip Spruill Jr., a fifth grader at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary, ended his life April 5 in his Bartram Village home.
Spruill’s grandmother, Linda Lash-Smith, 56, told PGN that her grandson wasn’t a model student. He was a fighter. He had been suspended 15 times between November and March because he was involved in physical altercations on school grounds — but she said he had to fight to defend himself and his younger brother, who was harassed and threatened for being too “effeminate.”
“Phil was overweight and bullied because of that on a daily basis, and then he felt that he had to protect his little brother, because kids were bullying him about being gay and calling him that ‘F’ word,’” she said. “Children are cruel. All Phil wanted to do was play and make friends. All they wanted to do was make fun of him. He just couldn’t understand why, and it hurt him deeply.”
She said the bullying occurred every day and it was constant.
“It was in school, on the school bus and all the way up to his front door, because [the kids all live] in the same complex,” she said. “They would chase them and call them ‘fatty and the faggot.’”
Lash-Smith said that the daily taunting caused Spruill, who already struggled with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), to develop signs of depression and anxiety.
“To get up every day knowing that he had to deal with bullies during the day and then go to sleep at night thinking, ‘Tomorrow’s going to be another day of the same hell’ — that’s too much for an 11-year-old. That’s too much for an adult,” she said. “We knew he was very sad and depressed about it, but we never suspected he would do anything like this. We never thought that he would be at a point where he was so bothered that he felt he had no other way out.”
Lash-Smith said that Spruill’s parents reported the bullying incidents to the school several times but suggested that they weren’t taken seriously because their son had been involved in so many fights.
“The school didn’t do anything to stop it. They just considered him a troublemaker, and [his mom] was just a pain-in-the-butt parent. They had already been labeled,” she said. “He wasn’t given the support or resources that he should have had. We should be planning for spring and summer, not his homegoing services.”
School District spokesperson Lee Whack told PGN that he checked with Comegys and that there were no founded cases of bullying that were reported, for either of the Spruill boys.
“We take claims of bullying very seriously. We look into it. We work to be preventative — specifically to our LGBTQ youth,” he said. “Above all of that, the District and the Comegys school community are deeply saddened by the tragedy and we never want to see something like this happen. Young people have challenges and it’s up to us to do our very best to support them.”
Whack said that the School District maintains a strict no-bullying policy that is posted on its website, and students and staff are continuously reminded that harassment in schools is unacceptable.
On top of training staff on ways to recognize and prevent bullying, Whack said the School District has also recently added hundreds of “climate staff” that are in schools — including Comegys — for the sole purpose of maintaining a positive school climate, whether that involves focusing on student health or monitoring interactions between students.
“We’ve invested in that kind of staff to handle these types of instances,” he said.
Mental health care provider, WES Health Services, is onsite at Comegys and provides support to children who have behavioral health issues. Lash-Smith said that her grandson had interacted with those counselors, but suggested that they didn’t have the capacity to help every student that came through the door.
She told PGN that a counselor contacted the family after Spruill’s death to say that he had tried to talk to her the very day that he died, but she had to tell him to wait because she was dealing with another situation.
“By the time she finished, he was gone,” she said. “So once again, Phil was pushed to the side. That just speaks to the fact that there’s not enough qualified people in there to help the students that need attention.” PGN tried but was unable to verify this story with the school.
Lash-Smith said that Comegys enrolled her grandson in an Individualized Education Planner (IEP) program about a month ago, which placed him in an emotional support class with other children dealing with behavioral health issues. The program would also have provided him with a therapeutic support staff (TSS) worker, who would work with him on a one-on-one basis and help remove him from situations where he was becoming overwhelmed or upset.
The grandmother suggested that the process of getting Spruill into an IEP took longer than it needed to. It begins with the parent writing a letter requesting an evaluation for entry, which Spruill’s mother did at least once to no avail.
“Finally she went to the school to find out why so much time had passed since she sent the letter and they actually told her, ‘Could you write another one, we lost that one,’ she recalled. “The IEP finally went through, but it’s too little too late. It should have been done months ago.”
After Spruill’s passing, the School District brought grief counselors into Comegys for two days to consult with students and staff. A letter was also distributed to parents along with a list of local resources for outside grief support.
Whack said the principal at Comegys has visited the Spruill family at home, and that the School District has been in touch with them. The family has received an outpouring of support from the LGBTQ community, particularly Woody’s and Voyeur Nightclub who donated money toward funeral costs.
Lash-Smith told PGN that she wants to share her grandson’s story in the hope that it will help other kids who are dealing with similar issues.
“What we want from this is legislature to make the whole school staff accountable. They should be trained to look for children who are showing signs of depression so they can be sent to get support and help,” she said. “And there should be zero tolerance for bullying. It shouldn’t be swept under the rug or moved aside. It’s important. Just like drugs in school are important, guns in schools is important, well so is bullying.”
She and the Spruill family have already been in touch with their state representative, Malcolm Kenyatta, who told PGN that he is working with State Rep. Joanna McClinton in Harrisburg on legislation that would “ensure this tragedy never happens to another child.”
“This is heartbreaking. I’ve struggled to move past the pain of this tragedy but have been grounded by the strength of the Spruill family,” he said. “We need to address this crisis of suicide and bullying, so that little Phil’s life will not have been in vain.”
For now, the Spruill family is working to organize Spruill’s homegoing ceremony amidst being in an understandable state of shock over his passing.
“I can’t even describe how hard it is. Losing him this way has left a huge hole that I don’t know how or when it’s going to be filled for some of us, if ever. To lose a child to an accident or illness… an illness you can prepare for, an accident you can somewhat understand. But for an 11 year old to take his life, I don’t know that there is really any accepting or understanding.”
A viewing took place on April 15 at Ford Memorial Temple.
If you are reading this and have had thoughts about suicide, you are not alone. There is hope. Begin by contacting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.