A 12-year-old boy took his own life after being tortured by bullies and told he would go to Hell because he is gay.
Eli Fritchley was a seventh-grader from Shelbyville, Tennessee, who adored Spongebob Squarepants and played the trombone.
He died by suicide on 28 November, no longer able to bear the “pain and torture” from kids at his school, his parents said.
Eli was never afraid to be himself, Debbey and Steve Fritchley told WKRN-TV, and they were in awe at his bravery in the face of bullies at his school, Cascades Muddle School in Bedford County.
“He was told because he didn’t necessarily have a religion and he said he was gay that was going to Hell,” Debbey told the local station. “They told him that quite often.”
She added that Eli wore the same Spongebob sweater every day – even doing the laundry himself – and painted his nails. “I think probably because he was in the same clothes every single day that they used that as a weapon,” she added.
Eli’s father, Steve, said: “It was really abusive. I don’t think it was ever physical. I think it was just words, but words hurt.
“They really hurt. This has just blindsided us. This is something we would have never, ever expected.”
Though his parents knew he was being bullied, neither Debbey nor Steve knew the extent of how Eli was feeling.
“We all failed him,” Debbey said. “We all failed him. It’s as simple as that.”
Family of Eli Fritchley raise thousands so ‘this terrible tragedy doesn’t happen again’
The story of Eli Fritchley echoes a frightening pattern for queer youth who are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their straight, cisgender peers, according to LGBT+ suicide-prevention charity The Trevor Project.
More than one in two queer youth have been bullied in person or electronically, it adds.
Bedford County School district officials were left “shocked” and “devastated” by the news of Eli’s passing. Working together with his grieving parents, superintendent Tammy Garrett said more social and emotional education programs will be rolled out across local schools.
“Anytime someone takes his or her life, especially a child, it is nearly unbearable,” Garrett said in a statement.
“Our hearts go out to his parents and family as they deal with this terrible loss.”
Now Fritchley’s parents are working to ensure that no child or parent goes through what their family did. “I honestly think education, education, education for everyone where bullying is concerned,” Debbey said, “because it is a problem.
“Not just in Bedford County. It’s a problem everywhere.”
The Fritchley family, with the help of Penalties Sports Bar & Grill, have created a GoFundMe paid to do just that.
Tens of thousands of dollars have poured into the fundraiser to “go towards other kids and families […] so that this terrible tragedy doesn’t have to happen again”, ” fund organiser and family friend Shondelle Lewis wrote.
“As parents and grandparents, it is our responsibility to teach our children to love, not hate; to be kind, not mean; to understand that we are all different in our own ways and that is OK.”
“Hug your children and your grandchildren, tell them this world doesn’t have to be so full of evil because, in the end, evil never wins.”
Suicide is preventable. Readers who are affected by the issues raised in this story are encouraged to contact Samaritans on 116 123 (www.samaritans.org), or Mind on 0300 123 3393 (www.mind.org.uk). Readers in the US are encouraged to contact the National Suicide Prevention Line on 1-800-273-8255.