ZEBULON — A hospitalized Zebulon Middle School student has received national attention in the past week, thanks to the efforts of anti-bullying advocates and an online fan community based on the cartoon series “My Little Pony.”
Donors from across the country have raised more than $50,000 online for the family of 11-year-old Michael Morones, who has been in a medically induced coma at WakeMed in Raleigh since the Jan. 23 incident at his home.
Michael’s mother, Tiffany Morones-Suttle, and stepfather, Chris Suttle, think he attempted to take his life by hanging himself because he was being bullied for liking “My Little Pony.” The series and toys about magical, rainbow-colored ponies are primarily marketed to young girls but have a group of online fans who are male and adult.
Some adults who spent time with Michael said they never saw the bullying his parents have recounted for media outlets such as People magazine. But family members want to use what they say is an apparent suicide attempt to talk about bullying.
In the two weeks since Michael has been hospitalized, various online fundraisers have been created, and the family has had so much attention it has hired a Durham-based public relations company, Summit Consulting LLC, to handle information requests. There is a Twitter account dedicated to updates, and Suttle has participated in podcasts popular among “Pony” fans to talk about Michael’s story and condition.
There has been little information from Wake County school or law enforcement officials about any investigation into the bullying Michael’s parents say he endured.
A difficult night
Jan. 23 was a hard day for Michael, his stepfather said.
The usually happy and agreeable Michael was being more difficult that night, Suttle said. Michael and his older brother, Angel, 13, got into an argument that included Angel saying he was tired of Michael talking about “My Little Pony,” according to Suttle.
After arguing with Angel, Michael went to his room, Suttle said. Later, Morones-Suttle sent her other two children to bed and checked on a thud she had heard from Michael’s room a few minutes earlier, Suttle said. She found Michael hanging by a necktie from the top bunk of a bunkbed, Suttle said.
Oxygen to Michael’s brain had been cut off long enough to cause severe brain damage, although Suttle said no one can be sure of the extent of the damage until Michael wakes up. Morones-Suttle and Suttle are not sure how long Michael was without oxygen.
In his first six hours of hospitalization, no one was sure whether Michael would survive, Suttle said.
Michael didn’t leave a note or give his parents any sort of warning about what could have led to a suicide attempt. But Suttle said the family thinks Michael’s peers may have unintentionally made him feel embarrassed and ashamed for liking “Pony.”
“I don’t even know if the kids realized what they did was bullying,” Suttle said.
Michael’s parents said he considers himself a “brony,” a name male “Pony” fans give themselves. Some children, Suttle said, would call Michael gay because of his interest in the toys and television show.
Though Michael’s parents say they are sure bullying led to a suicide attempt, they said he never reported it to school officials. Because of student privacy laws, Wake school officials could not comment on whether Michael ever complained about being bullied.
Michael also spent a lot of time with classmates after school at the Zebulon Boys and Girls Club. Club Director Karl Thoma said the 11-year-old was outgoing, well-liked and participated in most of the activities the club offered.
None of the staff could recall Michael having problems with any of the other children.
“Maybe things weren’t big as far as what we consider big,” Thoma said. “But maybe there were some little things building up inside of him that he was keeping down that a lot of people weren’t aware of because he’s got a smile on his face all the time.”
Thoma said that until he visited Michael in the hospital, he didn’t know about the child’s interest in “Pony.” Michael’s WakeMed room was filled with “Pony” memorabilia.
“It just didn’t come up when he was at the club,” Thoma said. “I was unaware that he was interested in those things, and I was also unaware he was being made fun of because of that.”
The Wake school system has an official policy that defines bullying and lays out how it should be reported, investigated and, if necessary, what disciplinary actions should be taken.
Zebulon Middle Principal Dalphine Perry did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Neither did a school English teacher who posted a comment on a Facebook page in which she said she never saw any bullying.
Suttle said he thinks the bullying warning signs that teachers are told to look for are outdated and don’t apply to all students. Michael’s grades and demeanor never changed, and he never acted out, his stepfather said.
Stella Shelton, the Wake school system’s interim chief of communications, said the system would not confirm any acts of bullying against a specific student. She said the central office’s thoughts are with Michael and his family.
The Suttle family said it does not plan to ask for an investigation to identify individual students who may have bullied Michael.
The Wake County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating Michael’s injuries, said it is not ready to comment on the case because the inquiry is in progress and involves a juvenile.
Hankerson: 919-829-4826; Twitter: @easternwakenews