A Spencer Middle School student, Gavin DeBondt, braved further ridicule in his life by sharing his personal bullying experience as a bisexual student in the aftermath of the suicide of Kenneth Weishugn, a South O'Brien High School student who became the target of bullying after revealing he was gay. DeBondt shared his story about the personal pain that drove him to run away from home, seeking a place to end his life.
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Gavin DeBondt left the Spencer Middle School shortly after noon during Clay County Fair week last September.
Perhaps the obvious destination would have been the fair, where the two most important f's to teenagers - food and fun - are prevalent.
But that was not where Gavin was headed.
The eighth grader left the school planning never to return.
As a matter of fact, he left the city of Spencer on foot, with no plans to come back.
He was headed to a secluded area near Sioux Rapids, where he planned to end his life; a life which over the course of a couple of months had been the target of bullying from classmates.
"I tried to run away. I was going kill myself," Gavin recalled. "I knew where I was going to go. It's in the middle of nowhere. There's a bunch of metal and old stuff that could easily hurt you."
He continued, "I left Spencer and walked 12 miles. I went out of the way. I didn't want to be found by police, so I stayed off the highway."
In the meantime, his mother, Elizabeth Frink, was working at the fairgrounds. She had expected to see her son at the fairgrounds with either his brothers or friends after school. He never showed up. After she completed her shift at about 8:30 p.m., she checked at home and learned that her son Garrett was there, but Gavin hadn't come home from school yet.
She began asking friends who were working at the fairgrounds if they had seen him at all. Elizabeth requested they keep their eyes open for any appearance.
The mother of the Spencer 15-year-old knew there could be more to her son's disappearance.
"He went through a deep depression last September," Elizabeth said. "He isolated himself. We were close, but I noticed him not being social with anybody."
Elizabeth ran into one of his friends at the fair, who said the last time she had seen him was at school. Elizabeth spoke with her husband, near 9 p.m., and panic set in.
"I was driving around Spencer looking for my son."
It was near 10:30 p.m. He wasn't at any of his friends' homes or his usual hangouts. Elizabeth's cell phone rang. An unfamiliar number from outside the area appeared on the glowing screen. When she answered, Gavin's voice was on the other end of the line.
He had stopped at the home of a farmer, about 12 miles from town. Gavin wanted to speak to his mother.
"Right away I was so angry. 'Where are you?' I asked. He was like, 'Please don't be angry,' and he began crying," Elizabeth remembered.
After driving to the farm and picking him up, he told her on the way home he had planned to end his life.
"It hit me hard. I just could have lost my kid," she said. "I knew he needed some help. He had never, ever done something like that."
The bullying Gavin faced stemmed from his admittance that he was bisexual.
Born in Sioux Center, Gavin and his family lived in Sioux City before moving to Spencer prior to his starting school. He attended Lincoln Elementary and was just part of the group. Never interested in sports, Gavin took part in choir "because everyone had to be in it," but, like most kids in elementary school, liked to spend his time hanging out with his friends.
"Everyone was pretty much my friend then," Gavin said.
He had a great relationship with Principal Lucas DeWitt, who he said was supportive and encouraging to all of the students.
"He was really nice; he was awesome. He was nice to everyone. He wasn't mean unless he had to be. He talked to everyone and was a friend to everyone."
Gavin said his bi-curious feelings began to manifest themselves when he was in second or third grade, as he felt an attraction to both girls and boys in his class. He wasn't sure how to explain it or handle it, but he knew one thing.
"I knew that it would become a problem. I just didn't tell anyone," Gavin said. "I felt a little different, but not too much. I just kind of blew it off mostly."
Like other smaller kids, Gavin sustained the typical bullying from older and bigger kids on the bus, but his sexuality was not an issue.
Before he began seventh grade, the family had moved to Greenville, and Gavin attended Sioux Central to start the year. Family challenges prompted the parents to transfer him and his siblings to Clay Central-Everly School District to complete the year.
Once again, Gavin found himself the target of some bullying.
"They were the newbies. That's just how it was," Elizabeth said.
The family returned to Spencer in time for Gavin to begin his eighth-grade year with some of the familiar faces from Lincoln Elementary.
A close friend sent Gavin a Facebook message just before the start of the school year, warning him that kids were talking about him.
The message, paraphrased, warned: "Be careful, a lot of friends are calling you 'fag' and 'gay.'" "He just warned me that it was going on," Gavin explained.
Gavin said he and his messenger weren't best friends, like they had been, but talked once in a while.
He wasn't sure why the students were talking about him, because he had only recently confided in his immediate family.
"I don't know how I showed it. Some of the kids would just ask me if I was bi or gay. I said no, because I knew what people would do."
His mother said he came to her first to share his personal sexuality.
"I always wondered but never asked," Elizabeth said. "I started noticing things when he was going to Sioux Central.
"More girls noticed because he has a lot of girl friends. He has more fun with the girls, and the way he carries himself. The guys started noticing and saying stuff."
Gavin shared his secret with his mother, who talked with the rest of his family.
"I talked with Tracey, his step-dad. I told his sisters, but it was private. It was our discussion," Elizabeth said.
"That was his choice. I told him I would support him in whatever decision he made. I would still love him, regardless of what he chose."
"I didn't care if my family knew," Gavin added. "I felt a lot better after I told my mom."
After a couple weeks of enduring the verbal bullying, mostly from classmates, Gavin shared his story with a close female friend, who he trusted, because she too had confessed to an alternative lifestyle.
The word spread throughout the school.
"I didn't care. I was glad to have it out there. It spread across the school pretty fast - you know how middle school is."
Gavin maintains many close friendships with some of his long-time friends from Lincoln Elementary - predominantly girls.
There are others, though, who see his sexuality as a reason to target him.
"No one has ever hit me," Gavin said. "They've threatened to hit me. I've always told them to do it, and they never do. It's more mental bullying."
Gavin handled it the only way he knew how.
"I'd just blow it off. I guess it doesn't really blow off. I would just take it."
He just took it until finally he blew.
The bullying from his peers, coupled with personal feelings that he was forced to hide and disguise, left him desperate and looking for a way out.
He came within moments of taking his life to ease the pain.
"It's life," he said of the bullying. "But it's my life."
Gavin continued, "It hurts a lot. People may pretend that it doesn't, but on the inside, if you're the one getting bullied, it's a horrible feeling. It feels like someone is pretty much tearing you apart on the inside."
It's left him dreading school on a daily basis. His mother said the family is trying to remedy the problem; they're investigating placing him in the alternative school or home-schooling as an option, rather than sending him into an area high school.
Since his admission, the bullying, which started with accusations from a few kids, has increased, involving more kids, including some former classmates he once considered friends.
Similar circumstances recently claimed the life of a South O'Brien High School student who became the target of bullying after revealing he was gay.
"It's horrible," Gavin said of Kenneth Weishuhn's nationally publicized suicide. "I've been going through this longer than he did. It took him just that long for it to break him. I could have done that, and thank God I didn't. It makes me realize how quickly it can affect someone."
Elizabeth's heart goes out to Weishuhn's parents. "I think I would have completely lost my mind. ... That's what I'm afraid is going to happen to more kids. I can't imagine how they're feeling. They lost their son. I still have mine. I can't imagine what they're going through."
Both Gavin and Elizabeth said the clear message associated with all bullying is this: "Words do hurt."
"The kids, teenagers, need to realize words do hurt," Elizabeth said. "Some kids take those words to heart. They need to realize that it can cause a kid to take their life. I can't imagine any kid with a heart would want to go to bed at night wondering if it was their words that made a kid decide life isn't worth living."
Gavin added, "You'll never actually realize what it feels like until they're on the other end. Some will never have to understand, and they never should have to. It's not OK. It should stop."
The Spencer Middle School student just wants what everybody wants; to be left alone and accepted for who he is.
"I'm happy with who I am. I'm a person just like they are."