- Associated Press - Sunday, October 10, 2010

MENTOR, Ohio | Sladjana Vidovic’s body lay in an open casket, dressed in the sparkly pink dress she had planned to wear to the prom. Days earlier, she tied one end of a rope around her neck and the other around a bed post before jumping out her bedroom window.

The 16-year-old’s last words, scribbled in English and her native Croatian, told of her daily torment at Mentor High School, where students mocked her accent, taunted her with insults like “Slutty Jana” and threw food at her.

It was the fourth time in little more than two years that a bullied high school student in this small Cleveland suburb on Lake Erie died by his or her own hand — three suicides, one overdose of antidepressants. One was bullied for being gay, another for having a learning disability, another for being a boy who happened to like wearing pink.

Now two families — including the Vidovics — are suing the school district, claiming their children were bullied to death and the school did nothing to stop it. The lawsuits were filed after a national spate of high-profile suicides by gay teens and others, and during a time of national soul-searching about what can be done to stop it.

If there has been soul-searching among the bullies in Mentor — a pleasant beachfront community that was voted one of the “100 Best Places to Live” by CNN and Money magazine this year — Sladjana’s family saw too little of it at her wake in October 2008.

Suzana Vidovic found her sister’s body hanging over the front lawn. The family watched, she said, as the girls who had tormented Sladjana for months walked up to the casket — and laughed.

“They were laughing at the way she looked,” said Suzana, crying.

At school, Sladjana, whose family had moved to northeastern Ohio from Bosnia when she was a little girl, was ridiculed for her thick accent. A boy pushed her down the stairs. A girl smacked her in the face with a water bottle.

“Sladjana did stand up for herself, but toward the end she just kind of stopped,” said her best friend, Jelena Jandric.

Sladjana’s parents said they begged the school to intervene many times. They say the school promised to take care of her.

She had withdrawn from Mentor and enrolled in an online school about a week before she killed herself.

When the family tried to retrieve records about their reports of bullying, school officials told them the records were destroyed during a switch to computers. The family sued in August.

Eric Mohat was flamboyant and loud and preferred to wear pink most of the time. His family and friends said he wasn’t gay, but people thought he was. “They called him fag, homo, queer,” said his mother, Jan.

Bullies once knocked a pile of books out of his hands on the stairs, said Dan Hughes, a friend of Eric’s. Youths would flick him in the head or call him names, said Drew Juratovac, 20, a former student.

Eric shot himself on March 29, 2007, two weeks before a choir trip to Hawaii.

The Mohats demanded that police investigate, but no criminal activity was found. Two years later, the Mohats sued the school district, the principal, the superintendent and Eric’s math teacher. The federal lawsuit is on hold while the Ohio Supreme Court considers a question of state law regarding the case.

“Did we raise him to be too polite?” asked his father, Bill Mohat.

Meredith Rezak, 16, shot herself in the head three weeks after the death of Eric, a good friend of hers.

Shortly before her suicide, she had joined the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance and told friends and family she thought she might be gay. Mr. Juratovac said Meredith endured her own share of bullying.

“Meredith ended up coming out that she was a lesbian,” he said. “I think much of that sparked a lot of the bullying from a lot of the other girls in school, ‘cause she didn’t fit in.”

Her best friend, Kevin Simon, said he doesn’t think bullying played a role in Meredith’s death. She had serious issues at home that were unrelated to school, he said.

A year after Meredith’s death, the elder of her two brothers, 22-year-old Justin, fatally shot himself. His death certificate mentioned “chronic depressive reaction.”

In March, her only other sibling, Matthew, died of a drug overdose.

Most mornings before school, Jennifer Eyring would take Pepto-Bismol to calm her stomach and plead with her mother to let her stay home.

“She used to sob to me in the morning that she did not want to go,” said her mother, Janet. “And this is going to bring tears to my eyes. Because I made her go to school.”

Jennifer, 16, was an accomplished equestrian who had a learning disability. She was developmentally delayed and had a hearing problem, so she received tutoring during the school day. For that, her mother said, she was bullied constantly.

By the end of her sophomore year in 2006, Jennifer’s mother had pulled her out of Mentor High School and enrolled her in an online school for the next autumn term. But one night that summer, Jennifer walked into her parents’ bedroom and told them she had taken some of her mother’s antidepressant pills to make herself feel better. Hours later, she died of an overdose.

The Eyrings said they do not hold Mentor High accountable, but they think she would be alive today had she not been bullied.

No official from Mentor public schools would comment for this article. The school also refused to provide details on its anti-bullying program.

Some students said the problem is the culture of conformity in this city of about 50,000 people: If you’re not an athlete or cheerleader, you’re not cool, and if you’re not cool, you’re a prime target for the bullies.

StopCyberbulling.org founder Parry Aftab said this is the first time she has heard of two sets of parents suing a school at the same time for two independent cases of bullying or cyberbullying. No one has been accused of bullying more than one of the teens who died.

Barbara Coloroso, a national anti-bullying specialist, said the school is allowing a “culture of mean” to thrive, and school officials should be held responsible for the suicides — along with the bullies.

“Bullying doesn’t start as criminal. They need to be held accountable the very first time they call somebody a gross term,” she said.

AP writer Jeannie Nuss contributed to this report.

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