“Fatty” and “faggot” are just some of the hateful words 11-year-old Phillip Spruill Jr. and his 7-year-old brother JaySean Spruill had hurled at them day after day at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia.
Phillip Jr. was your average kid. He loved to laugh, eat pizza, and play Fortnite. He had dreams of creating apps. Most of all, he was close to his father. An emotional Phillip Spruill Sr., still grieving the loss of his oldest son, recently spoke out for the first time to BET about his son’s death.
"Some days, I wake up blind. It’s like going into a shell,” Spruill Sr. said. “I try to keep that mask going. Try to keep a smile."
On April 5, 2019, the fifth grader took his own life. His little brother and mother found his body.
“I call him my second in command because when I set things straight, he follows up behind me,’” he said. “I love him to death. He was my backbone.”
Phillip’s mother Linda Reese has been too grief-stricken to speak with any media.
"All he wanted to do was make friends," says Linda Lash-Smith, Philip's grandmother. "Instead, he was made fun of, ridiculed, and ostracized."
For Little Phillip, as he was known to his family, the bullying began almost immediately when he and his brother began attending Comegys Elementary. From the beginning of the 2018 school year to March, his family says Phillip was suspended approximately 15 times for fighting. Phillip Sr. says his son was defending himself and the school did little to nothing to diffuse the torment his son endured.
“They tried to put it to where as though he started everything,” he said.
The fifth grader was taunted for his weight and called ugly and “slow” because he had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). His little brother JaySean was called gay and was terrified to ride the school bus without Phillip Jr.
According to Phillip Sr., there were times when he and his wife didn’t hear about Little Phillip being suspended until he got home. He claims the school often threatened to press charges against the 11-year-old who also struggled with anxiety and depression.
“It's institutionalizing kids to where they are getting them ready for jail,” said Spruill Sr. “Every time they suspended him and then saying, ‘We're going to lock him up.’ So basically your mentally institutionalizing them.”
Megan Lelo, a spokesperson for the Philadelphia school district, told BET.com that “no one at the school is aware of this being said to the child.” Lee Whack, another spokesperson, called the boy’s death “a tragedy,” but maintains there were "no reported instances" of Phillip Spruill, Jr. being bullied.
Phillip’s grandmother was incredulous at this statement, asking, “How can a little boy be suspended approximately 15 times… mom or dad tells them what happened. How is it that you're not aware [of bullying] if every time he's brought back, you’re told?”
For months, the Spruill family tried to get an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is a document that lays out a program for a child with special needs and offers more emotional support for kids with behavior challenges. The IEP was finally approved about a month before his death.
Whack said the Philadelphia school district is “not at liberty to publicly discuss IEPs or special education services.”
On the day Spruill took his life, his grandmother says he sought out a counselor before leaving school, however, the counselor was busy dealing with another crisis. Spruill got on the bus to go home, for the last time.
Bullying is an epidemic and, sadly, so is suicide. According to a 2018 study from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, suicide rates for Black children under 13 are double compared to their white peers. In addition, the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing reported in 2014 that Black children are bullied more than any other racial or ethnic group.
Shadeen Francis, psychotherapist and graduate lecturer at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, says these numbers can partially be attributed to “trauma load.” She explains, “If it was just one identity on its own, for example, being a prepubescent boy, that’s one thing. Then adding on being Black, a developing child, lack of resources and being bullied, it can be a hard load for a child to bare.”
She also stresses, “This is an example of how these intersections impacts young boys, the limiting of their self-expression. Their issues are not just racial. Even within racial groups, we still have work to do around ableism and destigmatizing mental health.”
This May, in timing with Mental Health Awareness Month, the Congressional Black Caucus launched the Emergency Task Force on Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health to identify legislative recommendations to address this crisis. In addition, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-PA) is demanding change now. On May 11, he introduced Phillip’s Law, a bill with bipartisan support that would increase mental health professionals in schools throughout Pennsylvania and direct the department of education to study and determine an acceptable ratio of healthcare professionals to students.
“I think we have to have a different conversation about mental health not only in communities of color but also in our educational environments that are serving our kids,” Kenyatta told BET. “If we’re not going to take a holistic look at our students then they’re never going to reach their full potential.”
The Philadelphia school district has maintained they have counselors (323 counselors for approximately 131,000 public school students) but Kenyatta stresses “all those counselors are not mental health professionals and that’s exactly what we are targeting with Phillip’s Law.”
Meagan Lelo at the Philadelphia school district spoke to BET about the legislation. “The loss of any child is an unimaginable tragedy. At the School District of Philadelphia, the safety and well-being of our students and staff is a top priority,” she said. “We are working with state Rep. Kenyatta Johnson on legislation to increase mental and behavioral health supports for our students, which has long been a priority for the District. This is one part of our overall work to promote and enhance the social-emotional resources we provide to support our students, families and staff."
Kenyatta hopes that this law will be a lifeline for other families with special needs, “We’re not going to get Phillip back. I would like to spend time coming up with a solution because Phillip’s family is not the only family that have found it almost impossible to navigate an antiquated IEP system… Pennsylvania ought to be the model of caring for our kids, looking at them holistically and not just focusing on them passing a standardized test.”
Phillip’s father is ready to make sure his son’s life will not be another passing hashtag or trending topic. He and his family are happy about Phillip’s Law and will fight for his story to be heard so that this doesn’t happen to another child.
“We are going to fight,” said Phillip Sr. “We are going to make sure that he stands out to the best ability that we can.”
Clay Cane is a Sirius XM radio host and the author of Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race. Follow him on Twitter @claycane.
Photo: Spruill Family