Editor’s note and content warning • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255. A photo displayed at the end shows Drayke’s profile, at a distance, in his casket.
When they found out their 12-year-old son was being bullied, Samie and Andy Hardman said, they did everything they could think of to intervene.
They talked to him about how he was feeling. They got him into counseling. And they told school administrators, who at one point suspended the bully.
But still the harassment continued, they say, until Drayke died by suicide this month.
Now Drayke’s parents are grappling with what more could have been done and whether experts know enough about how best to prevent youth suicide in a state with one of the highest rates in the country.
“The things that were happening ran deep in his heart,” said his mom, Samie Hardman. “I don’t know that we knew just how deep. For him to think he had to end his life … I just … I can’t. We all loved him so much, and now he’s gone. We’d done everything, but he’s gone.”
Drayke, who was in seventh grade at a Tooele charter and whom his mom affectionately called her “little blue-eyed love,” had a passion for magic tricks and a dream of becoming the shortest ever NBA star. He died on Feb. 10, and his parents are now speaking out about the tragedy.
His death is the second child suicide to rock Utah in the last three months, with both kids startlingly young.
In November, 10-year-old Izzy Tichenor died. Izzy’s mom has said that her daughter was bullied by classmates for being Black and autistic. She says she reported her concerns to Davis School District and was repeatedly brushed off. The district had, just weeks before, been called out by federal investigators for ignoring serious reports of racism from its students.
Many have seen Izzy’s suicide as part of a larger pattern of a problem in the state with discrimination. The two deaths have been met by communitywide mourning but also demands for more mental health resources for Utah schools.
Samie Hardman said she’s worried about what kids are facing and fears more could be suffering. She knew her son was being bullied, she said, and she and her husband tried to step in and help him.
When it first started, Drayke would open up to them and his two older sisters a bit about what was happening. But, as it continued, Hardman said, he stopped talking.
He came home from school one day recently with a blue and purple bruise taking shape around his eye. When she asked how he got it, Hardman said, Drayke shrugged. “Snitches get stitches,” she remembers him saying.
Bullying at school
The bullying started about a year ago, Hardman said, and it was physical and mental and emotional.
She and her husband were proactive, she added, calling the school as soon as they found out about it from Drayke. Hardman said the administrators there stepped in immediately.
They investigated and took action. The bully was temporarily suspended from class. And his parents were informed.
Hardman said she appreciates the school’s response and isn’t sure how they could have handled the situation differently. She doesn’t blame the staff there.
In fact, Drayke loved the school and the employees. Hardman said he used to walk into the front office most mornings, throwing his elbow on the counter in a suave move, and declare, “I hope you all have a good day.”
The school put out a statement last week, saying it is “greatly saddened” by Drayke’s death. The principal noted: “As a school we take bullying very seriously and our goal is always to protect our students and provide a safe school environment.”
Even with the school getting involved, though, the bullying didn’t end. Hardman believes the bully retaliated after his suspension.
There were mornings when Drayke refused to go to school because he said he was afraid. He would stay cuddled up in the blankets on his parents’ bed — where he usually demanded to be tickled, his mom recalled with a smile — and skip first period. Sometimes, after that, he could be convinced to go in and finish out the rest of his classes. Sometimes not.
Hardman said she asked Drayke every day when he got home whether it was a good day or a bad day and encouraged him to talk as much as she could. They spoke openly about suicide, she said, as experts say to do. And she said Drayke told her that he was not thinking about it.
She also signed him up to see a therapist at the school to help, too.
But there were other signs that he was withdrawing, she said, and she believes now that as the bullying got worse, Drayke hid a lot of it.
She questions what else she could have done to step in, feeling like she did what doctors recommend. Should she have pressed Drayke more? Or do experts need to study more ways to prevent suicide in kids? Are there other interventions that could be considered?
Currently in Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 17. Hardman doesn’t want her monster-truck-loving, superhero-obsessed son to become just a statistic.
A different response
It’s uncommon for kids to die by suicide before the teen years, and because of that, it’s often not studied as much.
But the American Psychological Association said in a recent report that roughly 30 suicides between the ages of 5 to 11 occur per year in the United States. And there is concern it could be becoming more prevalent, too, including among 12- and 13-year-olds.
Experts generally caution against drawing a direct conclusion about what caused a child to die by suicide, including bullying. But the American Psychological Association does acknowledge that, more than adults, those kind of circumstantial factors can generally have a higher impact.
Hardman believes that’s why her son took his life. And now she and her family are pushing to prevent other kids from dying by suicide.
She said it’s the only way she’s able to move forward right now and not be swallowed by her pain.
Her focus is on a shortcoming in current approaches to addressing bullying and suicide that have no meaningful way to engage with the bully — not just the bullied.
In her case, she watched for all the signs in her son, and tried to help Drayke.
But as far as she is aware, she said, the bully wasn’t coached on how to be kind and stop his hurtful behavior. Even in her grief, Hardman said, she’s worried about her son’s bully now and if he’s getting the support he needs.
She wants those whom a school finds to have instigated bullying to be required to talk to a counselor as part of their discipline, instead of just being suspended. She thinks that would better serve the bully and have a bigger impact on ending the harassment. Hardman said the prevention can’t all be done on the side of the victim.
Amy Steele-Smith, a bullying prevention specialist with the Utah State Board of Education, said the idea could work. She said all students need connections and relationships at school.
“Not just the victim of bullying needs to have someone to talk to and connect with, but an individual who is engaged in bullying as well,” Steele-Smith said.
The state board recently updated its rules to improve how bullying is investigated in schools. Every district and charter is now required to have a designated staff member to lead investigations and communicate with parents throughout the process.
“We’re always looking to improve and do better at this,” Steele-Smith said. “We’ve got to for our kids.”
Hardman and her family are calling for more education funding from the state to go toward mental health in schools, including hiring more therapists. They’ve started a campaign with #DoItForDrayke, which Drayke’s sisters came up with. It has trended nationally, been picked up by Utah Jazz players and had millions of shares from the original post.
Drayke was the kind of kid with no sense of stranger-danger, Hardman recalled with a laugh. It made her nervous as a mom, but it was also part of her son’s charm.
She said he’d go up to anyone and do a magic trick or strike up a conversation about Spider-man and the Flash, his favorite superheroes, or spout out a fun fact about basketball. Drayke was obsessed with Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player to ever to compete in the NBA. He was 5 feet, 3 inches tall. Drayke joked that he would have the record beat, standing at 4 feet, 9 inches.
While some kids hope to grow tall, he didn’t want to gain any more than 5 inches, Hardman said.
Drayke played for a Junior Jazz team and was teased by his coach when he congratulated the other team with high-fives for their three-point shots. He dreamed of playing alongside Utah Jazz player Donovan Mitchell.
His mom had dreamed of cheering him on.
They loved getting ice cream together. Drayke’s favorite flavor was Play Dough. They used to watch the “Harry Potter” movies together. They hadn’t gotten to the last one yet. But they’d dress up the Dobby statue on the front porch of their Tooele home in a sock to match every holiday. When Drayke died, the sock had Valentine hearts on it.
He relished tormenting his older sisters and riding in the car with them, belting out “Baby” by Justin Bieber. “He didn’t like anything else Justin Bieber, just that song,” his mom clarified, knowing Drayke would be embarrassed without that note.
And with his dad, he’d do anything outdoors, hunting, fishing and rockhounding.
At Drayke’s funeral, the walls were filled with silly pictures of the boy, sticking out his tongue, making the duck face, hugging his dog, Halo. In one, he squinted in the bright light of the sun. In another, he clung tight to his backpack, with his blonde hair perfectly gelled back the way he liked, smiling on the first day of school.
The family shared a photo taken at his service, hoping to raise awareness of suicide and show the impact on the people who loved him.
Many of the photos displayed there had been included in Hardman’s first social media post about Drayke’s death. She had debated whether she wanted to publicly share what happened. At 3 a.m., hours after leaving the hospital, she decided she had to.
“A lot of times, as a parent, you want to keep it hush-hush with suicide,” she said. “But that just plays into the stigma around this. We have to talk about it. We must talk about bullying and suicide.”
She wants people to see Drayke’s face and what was lost.