She Battles Bullies in Her Son's Memory
updated 09/15/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/15/2008 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Cape Coral, Fla.
For more than two years, Debbie Johnston's son Jeff complained about bullies at school. Classmates tormented the sensitive 15-year-old on the Internet and spread false rumors that he was gay. Jeff tried to ignore them, but Debbie never fully realized the depth of his despair until June 29, 2005. That morning one of his brothers discovered Jeff, lifeless, hanging from a book-bag belt in a bedroom closet. A suicide note was found weeks later, saying that life was no longer endurable. "He couldn't fight anymore," says his teary mom.
Though devastated, Debbie channeled her grief into action. For three years, the mother of seven drove to the state capital—exhausting the family savings—to urge legislators to craft an anti-bullying policy. In June her work paid off when the governor signed one of the most comprehensive laws in the country, which, among other things, prohibits cyberbullying and mandates counseling for both bullies and victims. "It's an A-plus-plus law," says Brenda High of the watchdog group Bully Police USA. "It not only helps the bully but also the victim."
Still, Debbie won't rest until all states take bullying seriously; she's already met with Congressmen on Capitol Hill. Says Debbie: "There's always Jeff's voice in my head, saying, 'Mom, you've got a job to do.'"
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