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Teen suicide probe looks at charges in bullying; School, online comments tracked by Amherst police

Amherst police are investigating whether school bullies could be charged with harassment or hate crimes related to the suicide of Williamsville North High School freshman Jamey Rodemeyer.

Jamey was found dead outside his home Sunday morning after years of complaints by him that he was bullied and subjected to hateful comments in school and online, mostly related to his sexual orientation.

"We're going to look into whether he was the victim of any crimes leading up to his suicide," Police Chief John C. Askey said.

"We're not indicating, not speculating at this point, that that is the cause of his death, but independently, there may have been crimes that have been committed against him."

Askey said he spoke Wednesday with Williamsville School Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff, who has pledged the district's cooperation.

Members of the public, including those from the school community, have reached out to police in recent days with information suggesting that Jamey had been subjected to what would amount to criminal harassment, Askey said.

"We've heard that there were some specific students, an identifiable group of students, that had specifically targeted Jamey, or had been picking on him for a period of time," Askey said.

While investigators are focusing on what may have transpired in the recent past, he said, police are under the impression that one to three students may have been bothering Jamey since he was a student at Heim Middle School.

"We're looking into it to see if he was the victim of any crimes, and that's the bottom line," the chief said. "We're going to be speaking to school officials and students and anyone with direct information about crimes that may have been committed against this individual."

Jamey's mother had previously told The Buffalo News that she believed that a core group of middle school students bullied her son and that the situation worsened for him about a year ago, when many anonymous posts began showing up on Jamey's Formspring blog stating that he would be better off dead.

She knew about them because guidance counselors at the school had spoken with friends of Jamey who reported the posts. Many of his friends came to his defense on Formspring.

In a short YouTube video Jamey did in May, he expressed regret for creating the Formspring account "because people would just constantly send me hate."

The anonymous posts included:

"Kill your self!!!! You have nothing left!"

"Listen to us, you're a bad person, you don't belong here, jump off a bridge or something!"

"Go kill yourself, you're worthless, ugly and dont have a point to live."

"You werent born this way. You shouldnt have ever been born."

Seven months ago, in response to the Formspring question: What's one thing people don't know about you? Jamey answered, "How much I hate my life. Maybe it's cause I'm bullied. a lot."

His parents and friends said that it took a lot of work and encouragement to get Jamey through that dark period. Eventually, toward the end of last school year, Jamey stopped using Formspring altogether.

His parents said Jamey had seemed to be doing better and enjoying high school.

Askey said his department was never contacted by anyone regarding Jamey prior to his death. He also said, however, that the Police Department regularly deals with student bullying cases, particularly online cyberbullying.

"We investigate each and every one that comes to our attention," Askey said. "I think the biggest lesson is that it happens, and people should reported it to the police, even if they're not sure if there's potential that it's criminal activity."

He added, "If it's something we can be pursuing, we will. If people ignore it, it will just continue, and nothing can be done about it."

The Police Department's Special Victims Unit is assigned to handle Jamey's case, he said. If there are students who can be criminally prosecuted in Jamey's case, they could face minimum harassment violations.

Using a computer to bully someone would elevate the charges to aggravated harassment, he said. And if the bullying centers primarily on Jamey's sexual orientation, then it's possible that hate crime charges could be filed, he said. If it involves juveniles, the case probably would be handled in Erie County Family Court.

Anyone with information that could assist police are encouraged to call the Special Victims Unit at 689-1393.

Martzloff said that he couldn't speak to the specifics of Jamey's case but that the district will cooperate with police.

"I think when a tragedy like this happens, every single person in our school district -- every adult, parents, community members -- ask the question, 'What else could I have done to prevent this?' " Martzloff said. "And with an issue as complex as a suicide, in many cases, it's multifaceted."

Jamey's suicide and the issue of cyberbullying have received international attention, and Martzloff said he's not surprised.

"It's unrelenting," he said. "It's a rampant problem."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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