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Father fights bullying to honor son

By Carol Costello, CNN
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One father's mission
  • Kirk Smalley, father of a boy who took his life because of bullying, shares his story
  • Smalley works toward getting laws passed that could lead to harsher punishments for bullies
  • Suicide caused by bullying is debilitating for family and friends

Editor's note: Bullying is in our schools, and it's online. Why do kids do it? What can be done to put an end to it? Don't miss an "AC360°" special report in collaboration with PEOPLE Magazine, "Bullying: No Escape," all this week at 10 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- Kirk Smalley's 11-year-old son Ty committed suicide after being bullied. Smalley now works to try to protect other kids from bullies. He spoke to CNN's "American Morning's" Carol Costello about his efforts.

Costello: You seem like a man on a mission.

Read about CNN's weeklong coverage on bullying

Smalley: You could say that. I have a pretty big purpose in life right now. I'm not going to stop. I'll fight bullying wherever it's found. Schools. Workplace. I'm not going to quit until bullying does. I got no choice. ... I can't picture being able to turn on the news or open a newspaper, Miss Costello, and see that another child, another family has gone through what we have gone through and is living the nightmare we're living, without knowing I have done everything I possibly can to stop it from happening.

Have you been bullied? Share your experiences

Costello: You've accomplished a lot in such a short time.

Smalley: I don't feel like I've accomplished enough. ... I'm so worried school has already started now. We don't have laws in place. We don't have the change we need.

Costello: What did you promise Ty on Father's Day?

Smalley: I told him I would do everything I possibly could do to stop bullying, just dead in its tracks. ... If Ty were still alive and found out what had happened, Ty would have been the first one to sign a pledge card. Ty would have been the first one to take up arms and take up for the kids being picked on. ... If this kind of thing happened at the workplace, it would be a crime and you would be in jail for that kind of behavior -- and it's happening in schools. It's happening on the playgrounds. Why is it not a crime?

Costello: Do you want to make bullying a crime?

Smalley: Yeah. I want -- I want to make bullying HISTORY. ... Someone needs to be held accountable. Maybe not necessarily the children that are being the bullies, but the parents should be held accountable for their children's behavior. ... Give them three chances at it. You get a phone call the first time, visit the second time, the third time you're going to pay a fine and your kid is going to go to a different school with a little more stringent program.

Costello: Do you think legislators are in the mood to listen in Oklahoma?

Smalley: Some of them we talk to are backing us 100 percent. Some of them we don't get any response from. But it doesn't matter whether they're in the mood to listen, we're gonna make them hear.

Costello: Tell me about Ty.

Smalley: Ty was a typical all boy -- 11 years old. He'd have been 12 June 16 of this year. ... He wasn't exactly an angel. He was our angel -- a good-hearted kid. He had this smile that everybody comments on.

Costello: When did you first become aware that Ty was being bullied at school?

Smalley: About two years ago he was being picked on when he was at the elementary in the last year. And he was being picked on pretty frequently.

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  • Suicide

Costello: How was he being picked on?

Smalley: He was getting called names. You know, Ty was always pretty small for his age. And he'd get shoved, pushed here and there. ... Victims of bullying don't always tell what's happening. If your child tells you they've been picked on, it's probably about half or less what they've actually faced. ... Ty was getting in more trouble in school this year because of his retaliation. Even though he was a little guy, he liked to stand up for himself.

Costello: ... Did you tell Ty to do that?

Smalley: Oh yeah, you know we didn't necessarily tell him to knock the kid's eye, but you know, you don't have to teach a kid to take whatever somebody else feels like dishing out. What does that teach them to do? Just be passive all their life and lay down and take it?... Typically, all the parents that have lost children to suicide due to bullying, which they call bullicide -- and when you actually have a name for something, that ought to tell you how bad it's getting. ... The parents I've spoken to, in the past three months have all pretty much said the same thing, you know, their kid got suspended or in trouble for retaliating against the bully. ... A bully gets to pick his time. He gets to look around, see where the teachers are at school, and he gets to pick his time and walk up and do whatever he's going to do to you. Well, the victim, he reacts. The bully does it. The ruckus draws the teacher's eye, the victim retaliates, he gets the flag thrown.

Costello: Did you bring this to the attention of teachers?

Smalley: Oh yeah, my wife working for the school talked to the principal on numerous occasions.

Costello: And what did the principal say?

Smalley: Well, we've been told, boys will be boys, on one occasion. It would be looked into ... the problem is, there is not a paper trail. There's not documentation that we ever made a phone call -- or a visit to the office. That's one of the things we'd like to address in new legislation. ... Since Ty's death we've had a lot of his school friends come to us and tell us of many, many instances of things that Ty never told us about -- things that had happened to him, being pushed down and picked on. That he never even mentioned to his mother and I. ... A lot of schools around the country, their answer to bullying is they let the victim leave a little bit early, they let them go home early to get a head start on the bully. ... They take the victim out of their classroom and put them in another class, which draws attention to them even more! You're singling this child out! This child that's been picked on you're singling him out now! Punish the bully! Don't punish the victim.

Costello: Was the kid who was bullying Ty ever punished?

Smalley: He was given one day suspension.

Costello: Nothing else happened?

Smalley: No, ma'am. Not to my knowledge.

Costello: And how was Ty punished relative to this kid?

Smalley: Ty was given three days' suspension. He didn't even serve one. He came home. And he took his own life.

Costello: That suspension was the tipping point for him?

Smalley: I believe so. He knew that his mom and I would be -- would be disappointed in him for being suspended from school, even though he was suspended because he took up for himself. In my heart I believe that he didn't mean to take his own life. I don't know if I'll ever know what he was thinking.

Costello: I know that you said your wife found him.

Smalley: Yes ma'am.

Costello: I can't imagine

Smalley: No ma'am. I got a phone call about 2:38 and she was screaming. And I could not understand a word. And she just screamed and screamed and screamed. ... I finally yelled back at her, what is going on? And I could understand her enough to hear, he's dead. And I said who's dead? And she said ... Ty killed himself ... I told her to call 911. Hang up and call 911. Because at that point I had high hopes that maybe there was something left. And then I called everybody I could to come and be with her as quick as possible.

Costello: When did you realize that the reason that Ty committed suicide was because of the bullying at school?

Smalley: Pretty much instantly. On my drive home. I knew why he got suspended ... and it really struck home when I spoke with some of Ty's friends. We still don't eat very often like we should. We don't sleep much anymore ... you forget to do a lot of things, but there's one thing you don't forget ... with the suicide you tend to have a lot of anger issues. I had gotten mad at Ty and how can you get mad at your baby that you've just lost? But I have. And I got real mad at him. I'm not mad at him anymore. You get mad at yourself. You go through the "what if," "why didn't I," "I should have," and a friend of mine said you can't go down that way because that path lies madness ... you have to find a way to make something positive out of something so dark and nightmarish.

Costello: So, you're fighting for Ty to somehow stop this problem that there doesn't seem to be an answer to yet?

Smalley: There's answers out there. ... I don't know what the answers are, but there are people who do. There are people that have the answers. We need to get the world involved. We need to find those people. We need to find that one person that can make a difference. And if we can't find that one, we're going to find 100,000 of them. And we're all going to put our heads together and we're going to come up with a solution ... if you really want to learn what suicide by bullying is all about, talk to the people who are living the nightmare. We haven't done Ty's last load of laundry, because it still smells like him. We haven't washed his sheets because I can go in there and lay on his bed and still smell my boy. You want to learn what bullying and suicide is all about, you talk directly to the people that it affects the most.

First and foremost I hold myself completely responsible for what has happened to my son. Ultimately my son's safety rested in my hands. I was responsible for my son's safety.

Costello: That's a harsh thing to say about yourself.

Smalley: I'm his DAD! ... It's my job to protect him. No matter what. No matter where he was. It was my job to protect him.

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