Movie revisits La Grande High School student’s life and death
An Oregon teenager’s tragic story is coming to the big screen eight years after his death, raising timely issues about sexual identity and teen bullying.
Jadin Bell, a cheerleader at La Grande High School, took his own life in 2013 after facing persistent bullying for being gay. His father, Joe Bell, blamed the bullying and embarked on an awareness campaign that also ended in tragedy.
“Joe Bell,” a movie opening Friday, July 23, will remind some of that painful time, but it also serves to highlight steps the district has taken to address bullying and suicide prevention, some dating to before Jadin Bell’s death
George Mendoza, superintendent of the La Grande School District, points to the district’s “Culture of Care Framework.” The district has developed tiers of support and training to build strong relationships with students and create a safe and nurturing environment. The district also offers numerous trauma-informed, social and emotional, behavioral, and mental health resources.
“Everybody needs to feel valued, connected, understood,” he said. “It’s our responsibility in our school district to love, care and serve.”
“Joe Bell” is based on the true story of how Jadin’s father tried to deal with his grief and bring awareness about bullying and its mental health effects. Joe attempted to walk from La Grande to New York City, stopping along the way to share his son’s story. Nearly six months into his journey, he was struck and killed by a truck in October 2013 in eastern Colorado.
The movie highlights the importance of being inclusive and supportive of all students, regardless of their sexual identity, so they feel valued and understood. The movie touches on the need for communities to provide emotional and mental health supports to prevent bullying and suicides.
Mental health-related emergency room visits have soared during the pandemic, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heightening concerns about youth suicides. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24, and LGBTQ teenagers, who face higher rates of bullying, are more than three times as likely as heterosexual youths to have seriously considered or attempted suicide, according to 2019 data.
Experts say there is no one solution, but they recommend strengthening connections among students and their peers with supportive adults. They also advise implementing social and emotional lessons in classrooms and making sure educators are ready to incorporate trauma-informed practices.
Within months of Jadin’s death, La Grande High senior Colton Dunham started a Gay-Straight Alliance club, later renamed Gender and Sexualities Alliance to match the national network’s name change. The GSA Network’s student-run clubs provide a safe space for LGBTQ2SIA+ students and allied youths. The La Grande club meets once a week, giving students a chance to socialize and support each other.
LGBTQ2SIA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/nonbinary, Queer/Questioning, 2 Spirit, Intersex and Asexual, with the + recognizing that there are myriad ways to describe gender identities and sexual orientation. The Oregon Department of Education has created a plan for schools to help address education barriers for these students.
Dunham said he just wanted to create a “breathing space for students,” a place where they could be accepted, according to a La Grande School District news release.
The school district has continued to develop its culture and cultivate resources to help students and the adults they trust to handle issues of gender, sexuality and suicide prevention. The “Culture of Care Framework” is a mindset, a roadmap and a source for developing strong relationships, routines and regulated learning environments. The district offers counseling support and student outreach as well as staff training and wellness and community resources. The district’s website has additional resources for preventing bullying and suicide.
“We have a culture of care that has been developed over the past couple of years and is practiced at all levels of the school district,” said La Grande School Board Chair Robin Maille. She said the district strives to make sure students know about the resources available so they can get help sooner rather than later.
The movie starring Mark Wahlberg as Joe Bell has received mixed reviews, scoring a 53% among critics on the website Rotten Tomatoes.
Lola Lathrop, Jadin’s mother, said in a written statement that the movie is not entirely accurate but that is not really the point. She said she doesn’t want to try to place blame for Jadin’s death because that does nothing to prevent it from happening again in other communities.
“The bullying that Jadin experienced could have happened anywhere. And it still does occur, every day,” she said in her statement. “This is where our schools and communities and our parents need to focus their attention, because our young people are at risk. …
“I hope that the message this movie sends will make all of us more vigilant, and inclined to safeguard the well-being of young people who deserve the opportunity to thrive.”
- Jake Arnold, OSBA