KANNAPOLIS, N.C. — Derick John Thomason was desperate to be normal.
On the surface, Derick was a typical 14-year-old kid, with only his fire-red hair making him stand out. He loved NASCAR and idolized Jeff Gordon. He dreamed of growing up to drive a race car, maybe even replacing Gordon in the #24 someday.
On Saturday, Feb. 23, Derick’s parents heard that a body had been found in the southbound lane of Interstate 85, just a couple of miles from their Kannapolis home. News reports said the body had red hair.
It wasn’t just Derick’s hair that made him stand out at school. He had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, and the condition made him a target for torment from bullies.
Derick had slipped away from home early that morning after posting a Facebook message to his best friend, cursing the world and saying he just couldn’t take it anymore.
Highway Patrol investigators ruled the death a suicide. Derick, they said, may have jumped from the Lane Street bridge, walked into traffic or laid down in the road.
Now, his grieving parents want more than anything to make Derick’s death matter, and they’re speaking out about their son’s life and what drove him to take it.
A target for bullies
The Mayo Clinic defines Asperger's syndrome as “a developmental disorder that affects a person's ability to socialize and communicate effectively with others. Children with Asperger's syndrome typically exhibit social awkwardness and an all-absorbing interest in specific topics.”
Awkwardness is a factor in any teen’s life, but for kids with Asperger’s or other developmental disorders, the desire to fit in can be enormous – and painfully difficult to do.
“He wanted to be normal so bad, and he was so close to being normal that he knew it,” said his father, Andy Thomason. “It wasn’t like a kid with full-blown autism. They’re not really aware of our world. You wouldn’t know there was a difference unless you saw certain things or were aware of certain things he couldn’t do. You would not know he had a problem.”
But students who were with him on a daily basis at school could see Derick’s struggles – and bullies would target him.
His mother, Regina Johnson, said Asperger’s affected his motor skills to the point where he could barely sign his name. When he wrote anything he had to type it on a computer. He also had difficulties with spatial awareness.
“He hated to ask for help,” Regina said. “He felt like he should be able to do everything on his own. It took a long time to get him to use the resources that were put in place for him.”
For instance, Derick was prone to sensory overload, and at one school he had a pass that allowed him to leave class whenever he felt overwhelmed by noise. His sense of touch could also be overwhelming. Something that would feel like a finger touching a person would feel like a punch in the arm to Derick, his father said.
Andy talked while he clutched a tiny urn that held some of his son’s ashes.
Toughing it out
The bullying got so bad that Regina wanted to pull Derick out of school and start teaching him at home. But her son wanted to be like the other kids.
“Derick did not want to be pulled out of school, because it would mean he wasn’t normal,” she said. “He wanted to be around his peers. He wasn’t going to take the easy way out, because the idea of being normal was more important to him than taking that easy road.”
Derick insisted that he stay in school despite daily harassment.
“What would cause a lot of the bullying in the gym is they would go out and do a baseball thing or something physically active that he wasn’t capable of doing. He’d be on one of the teams, and because he wasn’t good enough (they would be like) ‘We lost because of you.’ And he’d get shoved into the lockers,” Andy said.
Over the years, Derick suffered several attacks, his parents said. He was choked by a boy, had students pull his pants down and was shoved into lockers, his parents said.
One time he was being harassed on the school bus and wanted the driver to pull over.
“He tried to convince the bus driver to let him off the bus a mile and a half from the school,” Regina said. “That’s how bad they were terrorizing him.”
Not blaming schools
Derick had been a student at Kannapolis Middle School before moving on to A.L. Brown High School, where he was a freshman. Andy said teachers tried to prevent the bullying, but there was only so much they could do.
“You can’t put video cameras in the bathroom,” Regina said. “You can’t put video cameras in the stairwell at every angle.”
Derick’s death has been a blow to the A.L. Brown family.
“It’s been a challenging and tough (time) for our staff and students, said A.L. Brown principal Kevin Garay. “A lot of us had grown close to Derick in his short time here.”
Despite the bullying, Derick insisted on going to school.
“He knew there were opportunities through school. You’re going to meet people,” Andy said. “And he wanted that life. He wanted to be normal. He wanted to go to the prom.”
Derick dreamed of pursuing a career in NASCAR, starting at A.L. Brown. Regina said the school has an engineering program and internships with NASCAR teams.
Jeff Gordon was his favorite NASCAR driver, and Derick’s room is filled with memorabilia, including a Gordon statue, Matchbox cars and posters. At one point Derick hoped to become a NASCAR driver who could replace Gordon when he retired. But over time he began to realize his limitations, Regina said.
“He just felt like maybe the driving portion was going to be too much for him, so he started having a more realistic goal for himself,” she said.
“He would have done something to get into NASCAR one way or another,” Andy said.
Too much to bear
But the relentless bullying proved too much to bear. The morning his body was found on Interstate 85 he wrote a Facebook message to his best friend, cursing the world and how judgmental it was. Littered with foul language, the message ended with him saying he couldn’t take it anymore and saying, “Goodbye.”
“It was him in a rage,” Andy said. “We know his intent when he left the house was to end it, to end his life. From the letter he wrote his best friend, and he wouldn’t have done that if that wasn’t his intent. When he left the house, he wasn’t planning on coming back.”
Regina has her doubts.
“I don’t think he planned it. I think something happened, he got upset, he wrote that message and he left the house and that was it,” she said. “We are wondering if it actually was suicide. Maybe he was just walking and he got hit. The medical examiner ruled it a suicide, and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
The bully society
People who bully have different mindsets, according to Jessie Klein, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Adelphi University, Garden City, N.Y. She is also the author of “The Bully Society: School Shootings and the Crisis of Bullying in America’s Schools.”
“I focus more on the mindset of a social environment,” she said. “Are children rewarded socially for aggressive behavior … perhaps relating to sports?”
Klein also talked about parents who encourage, perhaps unknowingly, the bullying behavior.
“It is dangerous,” she said. “Parents may feel it is the only way to survive in a society that expects bullying in order to get ahead. I’d like to tell parents that they are more powerful than they realize. They could help build a more compassionated community where their children and they themselves would more likely thrive.”
Regina Johnson said she saw that same mindset when bullies attacked her son.
“A lot of that is coming from pressure from the parents,” she said. “You want your kid to become the next NFL star or the next Dallas Cowboys cheerleader. That’s great if they’ve got the talent, but you cannot push your kid to the point that they are willing to do anything to get that.”
Andy Thomason added that children who bully may not be aware of the pain they’re causing.
“It can go from something very small to something very big,” Andy said. “You don’t know how many other people have been already on that person’s back.
“And are you going to be the straw that’s going to push that person into the path of an 18-wheeler?”
Regina said parents need to talk to their children about being a bully.
“I just want the bullies to realize how far they can push someone,” she said. “That it’s not just you sending a kid home to cry. You literally can kill somebody.”
Dr. David Sack, a psychiatrist and the CEO at Promises Treatment Centers, said even if a child is being bullied a parent may never know, because the cases are often not reported to teachers or parents.
“There is a lot of shame involved,” Sack said. “If a parent suspects that their child is being bullied, they should be alert to the signs of a problem, such as social isolation, aggression, difficult sleeping, fear of going to school and unexplained injuries.”
Sack said parents should encourage a conversation about bullying, sharing their own experiences and asking general questions about how other kids treat each other at school.
Klein added that school counselors can help run small support groups and have all-school meetings where at least a few kids agree to help start the conversation.
Regina Johnson and Andy Thomason agreed that parents need encourage their children to talk.
“Don’t give up,” Regina said. “If your kids won’t talk to you, if you know there is somebody they will talk to … let another person deal with it. Because sometimes it can’t be their parent that deals with it. Sometimes it has to be an outsider. Because kids, a lot of times, don’t want their parents to take up for them. Because a lot of times that causes the bullying to increase.
“They just need to be heard.”
“Derick, unfortunately, felt like he couldn’t come to us because he was scared of what the result was going to be -- that I was going to pull him out of school,” Regina said. “And that was my mistake.”
Now, Andy is finding himself on a campaign to stop bullying, getting involved in groups and looking to speak at schools and other organizations about the dangers of bullying.
“This is my therapy,” he said. “I said it at his memorial, and I meant every word of it, that my son’s death will not go without meaning. And my opinion is if I can reach and stop one child from doing what my son did, if I can help one child not be bullied, than this has meaning.”
Contact Michael Knox at 704-789-9133.