Deirdre Fell-O'Brien's daughter, Muireann, celebrated her ninth birthday this week. They celebrated the day the way they always do, she told TODAY Parents, with family and cake in their Garden City, New York, home. But when the O'Briens gathered around to sing "Happy Birthday," Deirdre began to cry. There was someone missing from the moment: her 13-year-old oldest son, Liam.
For the past six weeks, Liam has been hospitalized and receiving treatment for depression and an eating disorder — the results, his mother says, of relentless bullying during his seventh grade year at Garden City Middle School. Fell-O'Brien decided to write about Liam's experience on Facebook in order to raise awareness about bullying and to make his story heard. The post has since been shared over 2,000 times.
In her post, Liam's mom talked about the healthy kid he was before seventh grade. "Liam went into seventh grade very happy. He had lots of friends, he was always on the go, meeting friends on 7th street, riding his bike, playing soccer and he loved food," she wrote. "A cowboy sandwich was his absolute favorite. He made the seventh grade soccer team and was so happy and proud. He is an amazing soccer player and he earned a spot on that team."
After Liam made the soccer team, Fell-O'Brien said he began to change. "As the season ended and winter came, Liam gave me back his iPhone," she wrote. "He said, 'Too much drama Mom.' Then he stopped going to 7th street. He hung out at home with us. I was happy, but I kept asking if anything happened and was everything ok? He said he was fine."
Though Liam continued to play soccer, his mother noticed he stopped making plans with his friends. Then, near the end of the school year, his mother said he came home very upset and told her someone had punched him on the way to the bus at school. "Liam said he didn’t know who it was. I reported the incident, but no cameras were in that particular area of the building, and no monitors saw anything," she said. By summer, Liam stopped eating normally.
"He started to eat just one meal a day," Fell-O'Brien wrote in her post. "I kept trying to talk with him. 'What is going on?' 'Nothing, Mom, I’m fine.'" She took him to the doctor and found out Liam had lost ten pounds in about a month's time. He was admitted to a local children's hospital for treatment.
Fell-O'Brien felt it was important that her son start the eighth grade school year with his friends, so she brought Liam home from the hospital in time to do so. Before the first day, she went in and met with the guidance counselors and nurses at Garden City Middle School and told them what had been going on with Liam over the summer. "I was told staff would be aware and he would be safe," she wrote. But that Friday, Liam came home with a bruise on his face.
"I kept asking what happened? He said nothing, he banged it by accident. That was his birthday, and we went out to celebrate that night. He didn’t eat. He barely ate the rest of the weekend," she said. "He lost five pounds that first week back [at school]."
His parents begged Liam to tell them what was going on at school. "He finally couldn’t hold it in anymore. He told me he was bullied terribly in seventh grade," said Fell-O'Brien.
"It started when he made the soccer team. Two kids told him he sucked and shouldn’t have made the team. There were unnecessary pushes and kicks. He was told he was weird, he was fat, his freckles were weird, his eyebrows were weird. They used horrible language and called him nasty words. I asked him how often it happened. He looked at me crying and said, 'Every day, Mom.'"
Liam re-entered treatment at a hospital in Princeton, New Jersey, and Fell-O'Brien, who works as a nurse at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, and her husband Keith, a horse trainer, reported Liam's bullying claims to the school. Fell-O'Brien said the school conducted an investigation, but, "I was told Liam’s perception may have been different from reality," she said. "They just couldn’t find evidence that this happened. I have a picture of a bruise on his face, they said staff said he didn’t exhibit behavior that would suggest something just happened to him."
TODAY Parents reached out to Garden City Schools but did not receive a reply. However, Garden City Public Schools Superintendent Alan B. Groveman issued a statement about bullying October 19 saying they are "very concerned regarding the issue of bullying and the need to ensure that all students receive an education in a safe and inviting environment. No child should ever be reluctant to come to school for fear of personal or emotional safety."
In order to increase school safety, Groveman said the district is increasing the number and distribution of security cameras in its schools and will be instituting a "rumors" page on the district website for students and parents to report anything they hear that needs further investigation. Groveman also asked for parents to help curb bullying in his schools.
"Frequently, bullying occurs on social media and is seen by peers but not available to school staff," he wrote. "Help us to help each other."
Meanwhile, Liam continues his treatment for his eating disorder and depression. He has a feeding tube and must wear a heart monitor because his heart rate dropped so low from malnutrition, his mom reports. "He is having a tough time. Everyday is a struggle with eating and he is very depressed," she told TODAY Parents.
"This has really had such an impact on our family. We miss our Liam terribly," she said. "I don’t want to do anything because we feel guilty he isn’t here."
Child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa told TODAY Parents that bullying is a pervasive issue for children ages 10-16 and can have grave consequences. "Most estimates say that more than a third of children are bullied to the point that they feel hopeless," she said. "Developing an eating disorder is just one possible dangerous outcome."
Gilboa encouraged parents to pay attention to any behavior changes in their children and to ask questions if anything seems "off." "That said, this mom did everything she could and it wasn't enough — because even great parenting is not enough," she said. "We need change at every level, from preschool to college, and in every environment — home, teams, school, playgrounds, youth groups, community centers — so that kids will learn that it's safer to speak up than to keep silent.
"Bullying will always occur; our job as adults is to minimize it and to keep paying attention to it, even when we're not sure what we should be doing," said Gilboa.