A 12-year-old in Tennessee took his own life over the Thanksgiving weekend after a long period of being bullied at school for being gay.
Eli Fritchley was a seventh grader at Cascades Middle School in Bedford County. His parents told local news station WHNT he was a peaceful soul who played trombone in the marching band and wasn’t afraid to be himself.
His mother, Debbey Fritchley, shared that Eli loved the color pink, painted his fingernails and would wear his beloved SpongeBob sweatshirt nearly every day. Debbey thinks the clothing may have helped feed his tormentors.
“I think probably because he was in the same clothes every single day that they used that as a weapon,” she explained. But Eli didn’t seem to mind doing his own laundry every day so they would be clean and ready the next morning.
According to his mother, Eli was told by other students at school that because “he didn’t necessarily have a religion, and that he said he was gay, that he was going to go to Hell.” Debbey added, “They told him that quite often.”
While they were aware of some of the bullying, the parents say Eli “didn’t care,” or at least they believed he didn’t care. “And that’s what’s really difficult for us, because we thought he didn’t care.”
They say Eli “never blamed anyone” amid the bullying. Instead, Eli would “shine compassion and innocence from his gentle soul. This is something we would have never, ever expected.”
Eli’s father, Steve Fritchley, is quiet for much of the interview with WHNT, which is understandable. But when he does speak, a tear comes to his eye and their grief is palpable.
“It was really abusive,” he says. “I don’t think it was ever physical. I think it was just words, but words hurt. They really hurt.”
Debbey found Eli in his bedroom on Sunday evening, December 28.
“That image was terrible until we got to hold him yesterday,” Debbey told WHNT. “Now that image is gone, because the only thing we could think of yesterday when we were kissing and loving on him was how angelic he looked. He absolutely looked angelic. He’s just an angel.”
Even as she holds that image in her heart, she acknowledges how young Eli was failed by everyone around him. “We all failed him. We all failed him. It’s as simple as that.”
In trying to look forward, the Fritchleys want to do their part to stop bullying so other children or parents don’t endure the same circumstances. The couple is planning to launch a foundation to bring awareness and education to people about bullying and suicide.
“I honestly think education, education, education for everyone where bullying is concerned because it is a problem, not just in Bedford County. It’s a problem everywhere.”
The owners of a local sports bar where the Fritchleys are regulars, Penalties Sports Bar & Grill, have created a crowdfunding campaign in an effort to help. Rob and Shondelle Lewis say they, like others in the community, are grieving over the loss of Eli and want to help bring something positive out of the tragedy.
“I hope and pray, this unfortunate event we are going to make something of it,” Rob told WHNT. “We are going to come up with some sort of anti-bullying program through this Gofundme page where I pray to God this will not happen again.”
The Lewis’ add that since Eli’s passing, they’ve received numerous messages from people in the community impacted by bullying.
You can find more information about the ongoing crowdsourcing campaign here.
You can watch the report from WHNT here.
If you or anyone you know is considering harming yourself, please reach out for help. The folks at The Trevor Project are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You can call, text or chat online with their counselors by clicking here.