MIDDLEBURG — Students at Midd-West High School cried out against bullying Friday as they mourned the loss of a classmate who in the early morning hours walked about 13 miles from his home to Routes 11-15, where he ran in front of a southbound tractor-trailer after leaving a suicide note at his home.
Freshman Brandon Bitner, 14, of Mount Pleasant Mills, ran in front of the truck at 3 a.m. near Liverpool, according to state police at Newport.
The boy’s family discovered him missing at 3:45 a.m., and contacted police.
The road was closed for about three hours after the crash.
There seems to be little doubt in the students’ minds why Bitner did what he did.
“It was because of bullying,” friend Takara Jo Folk wrote in a letter to The Daily Item.
“It was not about race, or gender, but they bullied him for his sexual preferences and the way he dressed. Which,” she said, “they wrongly accused him of.”
His death came just days after an anti-bullying assembly at the high school, which, according to district Superintendent Wesley Knapp, was not held in response to any specific problems at the school, but because it is an issue Principal Cynthia Hutchinson has always felt strongly about.
After the assembly, according to student Briana Boyer in another letter to The Daily Item, “No one took it seriously, and joked around about it.”
Former Midd-West student Erin Barnett sent a letter as well, blaming the school, saying that when students report bullying, “Nothing is done.”
“Bullying should be addressed in every school, and should have a punishment,” Barnett said.
“I do not appreciate … kids bullying others for their own gratification,” Folk wrote. “Because of bullying, one of my closest friends took his own life.”
“I am writing this (because) Midd-West School District has bullies, and kids who are bullied are not okay.”
Other high school students on Friday described Bitner as extremely gifted.
“He was very talented,” said sophomore Alley Sharp, of Middleburg, as she remembered an “Evanascence” song he played on his violin at a middle school talent show, wowing the crowd.
Bitner’s Facebook page is full of references to “darkness,” but he also had much to say about his love for music and his violin.
Another student, who wished not to be identified, described Bitner as “emo” — which is defined on emo-corner.com as formerly a style of punk rock music, and now as a “more emotional state of mind.”
Short for “emotional,” emo is “more of an alternative way to let your feeling be known.”
Such expression is also shown by wearing tight-fitting pants and dyed-black or dark hair, covering the face.
“Anyone in our school who looks different is tortured,” said sophomore Emily Beall-Ellersieck, of Middleburg, who said Bitner had “changed” around the eighth grade.
Bullying is a problem at the school, she said, and “It needs to be dealt with.”
The day before, “He seemed perfectly fine,” said friend Kendra Lyons, 14, of Middleburg.
“He was so sweet,” she said, adding that whenever she had a problem, Bitner always tried to help her through it.
“Brandon was such a sweet kid,” Boyer wrote. “He was always smiling and happy ... but behind that smiling face there was something very different going on.”
The students had a little advice to give as well.
“We all wish we could have prevented this,” Boyer said.
“Bullying someone is wrong, and the only way people will find out it’s wrong is when something like this happens. So, if you’re suicidal, please seek help. There is help out there for you.”
Said Folk: “I think the Midd- West School District needs to toughen up on their students, and make them realize that bullying only leads to hurt and pain amongst all.”
“Life is too short to give up,” Barnett added. “We must keep fighting for what is right.”
Knapp said he was notified of Bitner’s death at 4:30 a.m. by 911 officials. He and Principal Hutchinson later visited his family at their home.
“The family is certainly grieving,” Knapp said, “as anyone would to lose a son, or a brother.”
Attempts to reach Bitner’s half-sister were not immediately successful Friday evening.
In an alert circulated by Knapp to everyone within the school district, he announced that counselors and clergy would be on hand all day at the school for those wishing to talk about what happened.
“There were many students who made use of that service,” he said.
The counseling center, held in the high school library, will be open on Monday as well.
In the announcement, he said: “I would encourage parents to talk with their school-age children regarding this tragedy, and encourage their children to seek help when they feel frustrated, depressed, and encourage them to reach out to other students who seem lonely or hurting.”
Later, he told The Daily Item, “It is a blow to any school to lose a student, but suicide makes the pain of the loss even greater than it would normally be, and school personnel are doing everything they can do to help students through the pain, and more importantly try to ensure that students receive help and attention before they feel they need to take drastic measures to end their life.”
There was never a reported incident about bullying at the high school regarding Bitner, Knapp said in an interview at his office Friday afternoon.
“And no staff member has seemed to have observed any,” he added.
It may be easy to blame the school at times like this, he said.
But the reality is, schools only have the students about six hours a day, and they can only do so much.
“He was a good student, and a good citizen,” Knapp said of Bitner.
The tragedy comes just eight months after an automobile accident claimed the lives of two other Midd-West High School students — sophomore Jacob Kemble and freshman Kylie Hummel, who died in March.
“We just lost two,” Knapp said, “and here we’ve lost another one.”
Kelli Herbster, youth pastor at Grace Covenant Community Church, in Middleburg, said Bitner came a couple of times to the youth group meetings, along with a friend, but was not regularly involved.
There is, of course, a tendency to wish, in times like this, that “had you knew, you would have done extra,” she said.
The youth in the church are regularly encouraged to “reach out to the hurting and lonely, because that’s what Jesus did,” Herbster said.
“Get outside of your own little world,” she said, “and be looking for kids like that, and reach out to them, before something like this happens.”
Friends of Bitner began a Facebook page on Friday, “RIP Brandon Bitner.” By 11:45 p.m., more than 330 people had joined.
District cancels event
Out of respect to the family of Brandon Bitner, the Midd-West School District has canceled open house activities previously scheduled for today at the high school.