Andy Leach was a silly 12-year-old boy with a contagious smile before relentless bullying pushed him to kill himself, his father says.
"Everybody really enjoyed to be around Andy," and he had much to look forward to — he loved being a Boy Scout and hoped to play saxophone in the high school band, Matthew Leach told The Associated Press. "So when we found out he was being bullied in any capacity, we started trying to figure out what was going on."
What exactly prompted Andy to hang himself in his garage after school March 6 remains a mystery. Key details are shrouded by privacy rules. Southaven Chief Steve Pirtle said he can't comment on the police investigation. School officials wouldn't respond in detail to AP questions. Leach gave investigators Andy's cellphone and laptop. He said Thursday that he's still waiting for results.
What has been made public troubles Andy's parents. Mental health experts see shortcomings in the county school system's anti-bullying policy. A state lawmaker who represents the district just south of Memphis, Tennessee, says he'll propose an "Andy's Law" in response.
Leach said Andy began telling them how school bullies called him fat and stupid about a year ago. Later, a group of students cornered him, saying "You're not going to make it out of this bathroom."
"These kids are awful. They're mean. They're cruel," Andy's mother, Cheryl Hudson, told WATN .
The bullying intensified two months before his death, after Andy announced to family and friends that he might be bisexual. He was confused, questioning himself and his faith, Leach said. Word spread inside Southaven Middle School, and bullies pounced.
"There was a lot going on in Andy," Leach said. "I think the inner turmoil and the name-calling, the bullying that went with it, finally pushed him to a point where he started making some decisions."
A counselor sat down with Andy and another student in February after Leach called an assistant principal. He said it was the only intervention he's aware of. Andy stopped sharing feelings after that, and only later did his parents learn what he was facing, he said.
"It's absolutely ridiculous that kids are acting this way, that they feel no fear of punishment," Leach said.
The DeSoto County School District denied an AP records request, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
"All bullying reports are treated with the utmost importance," a statement from district spokeswoman Katherine Nelson said. "All claims are investigated thoroughly, and school counselors are trained to help students and intervene when they are aware of a situation."
But the district's posted policy , written in 2010, lacks other "key components" promoted by stopbullying.gov.
It focuses on how to report complaints but doesn't describe procedures for investigating and responding to them, imposing consequences, or making sure victims have access to physical, mental or legal help. Once an initial complaint is made, all it requires of school authorities is to notify parents and "arrange such meetings as may be necessary with all concerned parties."
Bullying expert Michael Sulkowski said making the victim and bully meet can "add fuel to the fire."
"The child who's being bullied is disempowered, is potentially frightened for his or her safety and certainly their social status," Sulkowski said. "It's not appropriate to expect them to confront his or her bullies, even in front of a teacher or administrator."
Sulkowski, who teaches psychology at the University of Arizona's College of Education, said model policies establish enforceable consequences. They instruct schools to offer continued emotional support and to communicate with parents to make sure harassment doesn't follow the victim online.
What's most striking about Andy's case, he said, is an apparent "lack of communication between the adults."
Andy's parents say they now understand more about red flags — like when their son made excuses to avoid school. Leach says he monitored Andy's digital life but couldn't see messages that disappeared or were deleted.
"He didn't really come to us about a lot of things," Hudson told WREG .
After Andy's death, Leach found scattered writings and drawings depicting suicide dating back months in Andy's notebooks, but nothing indicating a breaking point. Hudson told the station "it was found out that he was going to be involved in a fight after school," but she declined to elaborate.
Other cases have led to criminal charges.
Two 12-year-olds await prosecution on charges of cyberstalking a 12-year-old classmate in Panama City Beach, Florida, before she hanged herself in January. The Panama City News Herald reports she'd been bullied in and out of school, and just before she killed herself, one defendant told her to "just do it" before ending a video chat.
Mississippi law punishes bullying as a misdemeanor, with up to six months behind bars and $500 in fines.
Rep. Steve Hopkins, a Republican from Southaven, said Andy's death "just broke my heart." He says his "Andy's Law" would make convicted bullies do harder time, take "the handcuffs off counselors" and establish a state lottery to fund bullying prevention and mental-health programs, among other things.
Of 44,193 reported suicides in 2015, only 409 involved kids 10 to 14. In a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey , about a third of high-school students identifying themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual say they were bullied on campus and tried to kill themselves in the prior year, compared with 6 percent of heterosexual peers.
"We want to make sure parents don't suffer from this because of lack of information and lack of policies enforced," Leach said. "We need to dig in, find out what's going on and make some noise."