The suicide of a well-loved gay teen has raised a flood of uncomfortable questions in a small, conservative Central Washington farming town.
CASHMERE, Chelan County — On a cold, snowy Sunday evening at the end of an uneventful January day, 14-year-old Rafael Morelos told his mother he was going outside to play with their dog, Kiko.
He never came back.
Less than an hour later, his older brother found him hanging from an irrigation bridge a couple hundred feet from the small cabin here where the family had been living.
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Rafael was openly gay. And his death has raised uncomfortable questions in this small Central Washington farming town — with family members blaming one another, a distraught mother searching for understanding and his friends and others wondering whether school officials did enough to stop the anti-gay harassment they say he endured.
His death came more than a year after a series of highly publicized suicides of gay teens focused national attention on issues of bullying, moved Congress to introduce legislation to make schools safer and inspired the creation of the video campaign “It Gets Better,” in which celebrities and others offer young gay people encouragement and support.
Exactly how big a role bullying may have played in Rafael’s decision to take his life remains unclear, but his suicide has sparked a number of actions in this traditionally conservative part of the state.
In nearby East Wenatchee, one man has collected more than 750 signatures on the website Change.org, calling on the Cashmere School District to enforce its policies against bullying.
School officials, while saying there’s nothing to suggest the teenager killed himself because he was bullied, have organized a regionwide gathering here Monday of parents and students, child-welfare officials, faith leaders and community members for what they are calling an evening of healing.
And on April 7, the Seattle Men’s Chorus, with many gay members, will perform a benefit concert in Rafael’s honor, preceded by a half-hour discussion about tolerance.
“The bottom line is we lost a kid — and that’s of concern no matter what the reason is,” Cashmere School Superintendent Glenn Johnson said.
“The reality is that we take that very seriously and we want to get better as a community. We need to learn and heal together.”
Easy to like
Rafael Morelos was a well-liked kid who made friends easily. His death has left many unanswered questions for everyone who knew him.
A short goodbye note he left on his iPod Touch offers no clue about his motive; an investigation by the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office concluded there was no foul play.
Nine months before his death Jan. 29, his mother, Malinda Morelos, had moved the family from a small southern Idaho town to Central Washington, so Rafael and her other children could be closer to their father — her estranged husband — who was already living here.
In the wake of her son’s death, she is grasping for anything that might help her understand why he did what he did.
Sitting in her apartment in Wenatchee, where she moved after Rafael’s death, she described a sometimes-rocky home life in which mother and son struggled to communicate.
In one of the books she retrieved from his school locker, he had written lovingly about their relationship. In another, he wrote that he was depressed — something others in the family have suggested she should have detected and done something about.
It’s a mother’s worst nightmare: “I wish he had said something,” she said. “He locked himself up inside.”
Rafa — as he was known to his friends and family — had been reporting to a probation officer after he stole some items a year ago, including a cellphone and credit card — items his mother said he returned.
On his Facebook page, he wrote that he needed to have fun for two weeks before going to “juvie.”
Why was he going to juvie? a friend asked. “Just something bad in the past,” he responded.
Malinda Morelos said she knew early on her son was gay and had long ago come to terms with it.
Rafa was open in how he expressed himself, dying his hair bright colors and wearing bright-pink skinny jeans. And he was a cutter, his mother said, often wearing long sleeves to cover the marks up and down his arms.
But she said he never discussed with her any problems he was having at school because he was gay — or for any other reason — and it wasn’t until days after his death, at a vigil his friends held for him, that she learned he had been bullied in school.
They told her kids had pushed him to the ground or into a locker; that they taunted him with slurs and told him his younger brothers would be gay, too.
They gave her names of his tormentors.
Rafa had been a student at Cashmere Middle School since October, after transferring from another middle school in Wenatchee.
Principal Rob Cline described a popular kid whom he talked to virtually every day. “He was an outgoing person, very spirited,” Cline said. “He was not with us very long but he made a big impact.”
Cline said Rafael reported one incident in which he was harassed by other students. It was investigated and settled.
Cline declined to be specific, citing student confidentiality and saying only that it wasn’t a physical altercation.
He believes that if there had been other incidents, the teen would have felt he could report those, too.
Cashmere Middle is a large, modern structure situated across from Cashmere High School on a sprawling campus on the edge of this small town.
Rafael’s friends describe an atmosphere not unlike that in other schools, where kids can be picked on simply for being different.
Rafael was the only openly gay kid in the school, his friends say, and that made him an easy target.
Makitta Noble, another eighth-grader, said she and Rafa became fast friends. Standing in front of the school wearing a black sweatshirt that was Rafael’s favorite, she spoke in a soft, sad voice about how kids would taunt her friend and call him hurtful names.
But Rafael never complained to them about it, she and others said, because he always wanted to keep things upbeat.
Jennifer Spies, another eighth-grade friend of Rafa, said she watched him report the harassment to adults at the school — more than once.
But, she added, “Kids know that if they are bullied it’s useless to talk to anyone at the school because they don’t do anything about it.”
The story of Rafael’s death began showing up on national websites, primarily those of gay-rights organizations, with implications that he killed himself after being bullied.
Superintendent Johnson said it was the death of a student, rather than any finger-pointing, that most upset him.
“You love kids — it’s why you get into this profession,” he said, his voice cracking. “And not just some kids or a certain type of kid. We have 1,400 in the district and we feel responsible for everyone of their happiness. With that comes accountability.”
Like other districts, he said, Cashmere regularly confronts issues of bullying and has policies regarding harassment that all students are made aware of and staff must sign off on.
He said the district also is struggling to address the growth of cyberbullying, and student use of social media as a tool for harassment.
“I can list all the things we do to prevent harassment, bullying and intimidation, but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying to get better,” Johnson said.
It’s the reason for Monday’s community meeting — to explore the issues around what happened, he said.
A second Cashmere teenager killed himself weeks after Rafael, and Johnson said the session will feature experts on teen health and suicide and focus primarily on grief, suicide and resources available in the community.
Sexual orientation, however, is not on the agenda — and that doesn’t surprise Jan Petree, who for many years headed Wenatchee’s now-disbanded chapter of PFLAG, a support group for parents and families of lesbians and gays.
Conservative thinking around the issue runs deep in this part of the state, she said.
“There are not many open minds in this narrow valley,” Petree said. Some of the most conservative are in school counseling positions, she said, and “that makes it hard for gay kids to go to a counselor.”
Frank Stilwagner, spokesman for the Men’s Chorus, said the April 7 concert will feature several Beatles hits that speak of healing and changes, such as “Come Together” and “Revolution.”
Photos on shelf
In her apartment in Wenatchee, Malinda Morelos has built a shrine of sorts — the many faces of Rafa, some smiling, some serious, staring back from pictures on a shelf.
One memory she cherishes is of an outing in the fall, when mother and son spent the day together.
They went to Burger King, and he had his favorite — a Double Whopper. She told him how much she loved him and he looked at her, surprised. “Nobody ever told him that enough,” she said.
Then he told her he loved her, too.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Malinda Morelos said, the tears coming easily. “And it’s something I’ll never be able to do again in my life.”
Seattle Times News Researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed
to this story.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @turnbullL.