Ohio teen’s death raises issue of racial bullying


On Dec. 11, 2014, Emilie Grace Olsen of Hamilton, Ohio took her own life. She left no note, but had messaged friends her final goodbyes earlier by phone. Her father, Marc Olsen, said he had told his 13-year-old daughter’s school about potential bullying she was facing. Emilie, who was adopted from China in 2002, was bullied in the sixth grade, but school officials believed the issue had been resolved.

Her father, however, told the Cincinnati Enquirer after his daughter’s suicide that she continued to be bullied in the seventh-grade and that some of the harassment was racially motivated. In May, Cincinnati-based WCPO TV reported that bullying could have factored into Emilie’s suicide.

Since the new school year, at her father’s request, the school had adjusted her schedule to avoid her bullies from the previous year. The news outlet also found records in Emilie’s student file showing that she was mentioned in an incident related to her being bullied in October. Her father had also addressed concerns about a fake Instagram account made to mock and attack her in January of 2014.

The police and school district stood by their initial investigation despite the report, drawing public criticism.

An Issue of Diversity?
The Japanese American Citizens League expressed its concerns with the investigation surrounding Emilie’s death. Citing a 2013 report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and the Sikh Coalition, the JACL outlined its concerns about bullying faced by Asian American students.

The 2013 report on New York City public schools found that 50 percent of the surveyed Asian students reported “experiencing bias-based harassment in school.”

The JACL, citing Fairfield City Schools’ largely white demographic, said “students of color can be made to feel isolated and vulnerable,” and called for reflection on Emilie’s death within that context.

Gina Gentry-Fletcher, Fairfield City Schools school and community relations director, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that the police found that bullying was not a factor in Emilie’s death. “This matter was thoroughly investigated by the Fairfield Township Police Department,” she wrote in an e-mail. She countered the JACL’s claims regarding diversity, saying “(w)e are an extremely diverse community, and we embrace it as one of our strengths.”

According to Gentry-Fletcher, 68.6 percent of Fairfield Schools’ students are white and 2.5 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander. She cited an Equity Action Plan the school board enacted in 2011 to bridge the achievement gap between students of color and to help staff understand “cultural differences that exist in our district.” The plan includes efforts to hire and retain staff who are people of color, increasing the cultural competency of all teachers and forming several groups and committees dedicated to diversity. She also said the schools have multiple programs designed to prevent bullying.

No Indication of Bullying
Matt Fruchey, Fairfield Township Police Department chief, told the Nichi Bei Weekly that there are no plans to reopen Emilie’s case following the WCPO report. However, Fruchey said cases such as Emilie’s are “never truly closed.”

The police had asked for more information regarding Emilie’s case, but no one has come forward. Until then, the case remains closed.

Fruchey also said WCPO’s reporting was “erroneous.” According to the chief, the incident reported by WCPO in October was a fight involving another student accusing a classmate that she was still bullying Emilie.

According to the police report, the police had consulted Emilie’s friends and boyfriend and found no indication of ongoing bullying. Detectives also wrote in the police report that they had interviewed a former bully of Emilie’s who said he had not been in contact with her since the new school year.

Gentry-Fletcher, citing privacy laws, said she was unable to share any more information regarding Emilie without her parents’ written consent.

Marc Olsen declined to comment to the Nichi Bei Weekly at the advice of his lawyer.

Asian Americans and Bullies
Whether Emilie was bullied or not, her death cast a light on the issue of bullying. According to stopbullying.gov, maintained by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, a quarter to a third of U.S. students are bullied at school, mostly in middle school. However, the Website notes that bullying does not necessarily lead to suicide. The Website explained: “persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety, which can contribute to suicidal behavior,” and “(t)he vast majority of young people who are bullied do not become suicidal.”

Furthermore, the American Psychological Association states that Asian American students generally face fewer instances of bullying. The APA reports that 18 percent of Asian American students report being bullied, though more Asian Americans proportionately report being bullied for their race than whites. At the same time, there are multiple case studies that suggest Asian American students are bullied at a higher rate than their peers, such as in New York and Boston.

According to Sumie Okazaki, a professor with general expertise in Asian American mental health and Asian American adolescents at the Department of Applied Psychology in New York University, the discrepancy could be because the case studies take place in urban public schools, which have a different social climate than middle-class suburban schools. She also said aggregate data lumps all Asians together regardless of “household income, parental education, English fluency, recency of immigration, documentation status, and other social capital indicators.”

“National data that aggregate across all ‘Asians’ (with a large number of middle class, suburban, and U.S.-born students) tend to gloss over potentially important subpopulations of Asian American students who may be at particular risk for being bullied or otherwise racially/ethnically victimized,” she wrote in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Okazaki said, while many things need to be done to address bullying, she thinks there needs to be more awareness among school staff of peer victimization along racial and ethnic lines. “Too often, teachers and administrators can be unaware of, or blind to such incidences of racial/ethnic harassment and/or view Asian American students as immune to psychological distress,” she wrote.

She called for proactive outreach to Asian students in schools rather than waiting for them to seek out help, providing safe spaces for students to talk about issues of racism and discrimination and to have responsible adults that can act on problems when they occur. She also said, “to prevent suicide and other self-harm, we want to alleviate feelings of helplessness.”


Anti-bullying and suicide prevention resources

• PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center: http://www.pacer.org/bullying; 888-248-0822; Bullying411@pacer.org
• Teaching Tolerance: A Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center has a list of anti-bullying resources and project partners: http://www.tolerance.org/supplement/resources-and-project-partners
Suicide Prevention Resources
•  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org; 1-800-273-TALK

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