On Saturday, July 26th, 16-year-old A.J. Betts took his own life. A.J. was born to a black father and white mother, and with a variety of birth defects (including a cleft palate that required numerous surgeries, and only recently had finally been fixed). He spoke a little funny. He didn't look like the other kids in his high school. And when he was outed as being gay, he came out to the rest of the people he knew, and that's when the bullying escalated. Even those whom he thought were his closest friends turned from calling him "A.J." to "Gay J." Those who weren't close to him were already calling him "nigger."
A.J.'s torment was so deep he began to question if there was even a God, and finally, he attempted to take his own life.
When he was getting his driver's license, he learned what it meant to be an organ donor, and his mother kept him alive for a few days after his brain was declared dead just so his organs could be harvested. A.J. would have wanted that, and his mother stayed by his side all along, until finally it was time to let him go altogether.
A.J. Betts is not an isolated case. He is one of a suicide cluster currently plaguing the Southeast Polk High School in Southeast Polk, Iowa. School administrators there post "zero tolerance" anti-bullying posters for a school body that is nearly 100% white, but the truth is, according to A.J.'s mother, there is a serious bullying culture there and a serious rejection of any kind of diversity. The atmosphere is so hostile, in fact, that there have been five suicides in 5 years at the school. These suicides offer grim evidence of that culture, as does a story A.J. told his mother shortly before he died, of an incident when he was being bullied in class, before a teacher. The teacher herself lacked the courage to intervene on A.J.'s behalf, and instead kept her head down while the bullying proceeded. It took another fellow student to stand up and tell the bully to knock it off. It was only then that the teacher took action...and told the intervening student to sit down and be quiet.
A.J. Betts had obsessive compulsive disorder, and he was harder on himself than he needed to be, expecting his mother's disappointment when he came home with Bs rather than As on his report card. A.J.'s suicide note was less a final narrative as it was a jumble of keywords that underscored how he saw himself. Scrawled in dark ink, the paper contained "stupid," "ugly," "worthless," and "never be loved." In the days after he died, dozens of his fellow students, most of whom reported being bullied themselves, came to A.J.'s family to show their support for them, and to honor the friend they had lost, a boy who, by all accounts, was a decent person who wanted to help others.
A.J. Betts was bullied to death by a community of people who saw his differences as repugnant enough to merit condemnation, harrassment and mental torment. He was killed by a gang of predators whose strength came purely from their ability to isolate the weak and enjoy the complicity of the apathetic. Somewhere in Southeast Polk High School are a bunch of young adults who are complicit in the destruction of a human life. Some of them may realize that. Some of them may not. Some may care or feel regret. Some may not. All appear to be part of a community where for an alarming number of young people, the best way out of town isn't in a car or on a plane, but at the end of a barrel, at the bottom of a bottle, or at the point of a knife. Somewhere, in and around the town of Pleasant Hill, Iowa, is a collection of people whose thoughts, beliefs and actions have collectively led a man to decide that life, as beautiful as it is, was no longer worth living.
And there you have it.
A.J. Betts wasn't just any kid. A.J. Betts was one of us.
His mother is Sheryl J. Moore, a prominent figure in the annuity sales space, and a frequent contributor to both LifeHealthPro and ProducersWeb. She stands out as an expert on annuities and related matters. Her son's death was quickly relayed throughout the industry by those who know her, and even though her professional site is currently quiet, you can reach her with a message of support by contacting her Communications Specialist, Jamie N. Johnson. Sheryl has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the "One Voice for A.J." fund at Valley Bank (1290 Copper Creek Dr., Pleasant Hill, IA 50327).
There have been more than a few times when the politics of the editors here and those of readers have been at odds. Rarely is it more pronounced then when the matter of homosexuality is brought up, whether it is over gay marriage and the special financial needs of homosexual couples, or on the more off-topic thoughts on what it means to support gay rights or not from a business standpoint.
Whether one thinks homosexuality is wrong or not, whether one thinks people of a certain race are inferior or not, whether one thinks it's okay to ridicule a person for having a facial birth defect or not, the fact remains that A.J. Betts was bullied to death in a country that is currently trying to come to terms with the fact that in this day and age, racism and homophobia and garden variety cruelty may be less than in the recent past, but it is all still here. And where it can, it swaggers in plain view, crushing underfoot the small and helpless. Where it can't, it cravenly whispers to itself where it feels it is safe to do so. And at all times, it is there in our phones, on our computer, in a million different places where kids could once find a safe haven from their bullies, but can no longer.
Sheryl Moore consented to an extended video interview with the Des Moines Register, in which she tearfully described her son, what he endured, and how he ended it all. Watch it. Then watch it again. Then, ask yourself how much you spent on coffee over the next three days, and whether or not it really is such a chore to send a dollar — just one dollar — to the One Voice for A.J. fund. On more than a few occasions, this blog has exhorted the professionals of the life and health industry to take action on things that might not directly influence the industry's ability to make a buck, but affect background issues that, in their own way, do impact the industry's bottom line. Such exhortations often draw criticism or are simply ignored by our readers, which is fine, as they are meant to be food for thought more than anything else. Sometimes, this author writes things that are meant to be taken more seriously, like the industry's uneven delivery of adequate mental health care to its health care policyholders.
This is not food for thought. This is me telling you that A.J. Betts is dead because a whole bunch of people didn't approve of who his parents were, of his sexuality and of how he looked. This is me telling you that a child is dead by his own hand, and for reasons that remain in place. This is me telling you that you belong to a community of professionals that do an enormous amount of good for an enormous amount of people through the business you conduct. The products you sell, the services you provide are noble. Noble. They rebuild families shattered by mortality. They ensure the financial strength of families across generations. They enable things like college education. You all do good each and every day just by going to work.
Now do some good for one of your own. Sheryl Moore needs you. And so does every other A.J. Betts in this country, who are more numerous than most care to guess. One of them is looking down the barrel of a gun right as I type this, wondering how it could possibly get any better. When a person is in that dark place, they can't find a way out on their own. They have fallen too far down the well of their own despair. It takes somebody else to pull them back into the light. Maybe a family member. Maybe a friend. Maybe a complete stranger.
Bill Coffin is the Director of Content, Communications and Media Relations for Starr Companies. He is a nationally recognized and award-winning business journalist and editorial director specializing in insurance and risk management. His work has appeared in National Underwriter, Claims, Risk Man... More