The last straw for Sharon Perry and her son was the four words spray painted on the school wall: "Russel is a fag."
The silver graffiti in the Battery Creek High School drama production room in February 2013 was upsetting, but it was nothing new for Russel Perry, who said he had been bullied for years.
The 18-year-old says he's often been made fun of, pushed around and beaten up. He has been called fat, ugly, retarded and gay. He has received death threats and been told to kill himself.
The graffiti convinced Perry she had to get Russel into a new school. Ultimately, he transferred to Beaufort High School, where he is now a senior.
"I wanted to try and make things better for Russel," she said. "It was not getting better at Battery Creek. ... I wanted to see if Beaufort High would be better."
Russel is doing better now. He says he has not been bullied once since transferring.
Perry feels fortunate that she recognized her son was being bullied, in light of the recent suicide of Celeste Wills.
Wills, 12, a sixth-grader at Robert Smalls Middle School, died April 30 of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. Her friends believe she was bullied, which might have played a role in her death. Her parents, Dale and Clarissa Wills, agree but say they had no idea she was bullied or suicidal.
A DIFFICULT TASK
On its website, the Beaufort County School District defines bullying as "unwanted, aggressive behavior that invokes a real or perceived threat or action. It is a behavior that is repeated or can be repeated by one individual or many individuals. Long-lasting effects of bullying may cause lifelong problems for both the victim and the bully."
The district has had anti-bullying programs for at least a decade, and the topic has received much discussion in recent years as a possible contributing factor in a number of teen suicides and school shootings across the country.
Experts say it's important for parents to know what to look for, to monitor their children's online activity and to have open discussions about what's happening at their schools.
But bullying doesn't end when classes end. Ubiquitous Wi-Fi, myriad social media and mobile devices like smartphones mean bullies can follow kids anywhere they go, even right into their bedrooms.
That makes it important -- and difficult -- for parents to be on the lookout for warning signs.
'I DIDN'T FEEL SAFE'
Perry said Russel became depressed and didn't want to go to school. He got mad at her for forcing him to go.
Russel, who has red hair, fair skin and a thin build, says it all began in sixth grade when he lived in New Jersey.
"I was furious that it was happening in school," Perry said. "He was little, and I thought they were going to keep him safe."
The bullying continued into the eighth grade, so she knocked on doors around the neighborhood.
" 'Could you please ask the kids to stop?' " Perry said she asked the parents. " 'I'm not asking for your kid to be nice to my kid. Just leave him alone.' "
It helped a little, but most of the parents didn't believe their children were bullying Russel.
When the family moved to Beaufort in 2011, Russel hoped things would change. But the bullying worsened, he said.
He started at Battery Creek in the ninth grade. By his junior year, he said he was beaten up once or twice a week. Someone picked on him every class period. Teachers often didn't notice until he spoke up to defend himself, and then he got in trouble for yelling in response.
Some days he would sit in the school's office and do homework. Some days, when he couldn't take it anymore, he called his mother crying and she would pick him up early.
"For about a month, I wouldn't go to my own drama class because of being threatened. . . ," he said. "I mean, drama is my thing. ... I didn't feel safe in the school."
Perry acknowledges school administrators can't control students all the time, but thinks more could have been done.
She first reported the problem to Battery Creek administrators shortly after Russel started there, and made at least a dozen visits to the school to discuss it, she said. She doesn't remember specific dates. She said administrators were quick to say Russel was no angel. She knows her son is not perfect. He has been suspended from school twice.
She said one of the administrators told her Russel should not be an instigator, should keep his head down and his mouth shut -- that if he wouldn't annoy people, people wouldn't fight with him. They suggested she encourage Russel not to respond when picked on.
Perry had told Russel the same thing for years. But she said he can be socially awkward and rarely filters what he says.
"I don't doubt he could be annoying to some other kids in high school," she said, but added she doesn't believe Russel would have provoked anyone. "I work with annoying people, too, and I don't come up behind them and jump them and hurt them because they're annoying me."
The trouble at school might have gone on for years, but the spray-painted graffiti on the production room wall got the attention of the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office. Deputies could not determine who did it, according to an incident report Feb. 11, 2013. School district chief student services officer Gregory McCord would not comment on the matter.
Perry then asked the district to move Russel to Beaufort High. She was told that unless the situation is exceptional, students aren't transferred midyear because it disrupts learning. She responded that the problem already was disrupting her son's learning, she said.
According to Perry, the district also denied the transfer request because there was no pattern of harassment by one person.
"There was certainly a pattern of Russel being bullied," she said. "But the fact that it had been different people didn't count?"
Battery Creek High Principal Edmond Burnes said he and his staff appropriately handled each allegation of Russel's bullying. He also said Perry's version of events is not the version Battery Creek administration heard, but he declined to elaborate.
Perry complained to McCord, who asked for an email detailing the reasons for the transfer request.
Like Burnes, McCord said Perry's "was not a no-fault situation. ... There's more to it than just the one side." However, he would not elaborate.
By the end of the school year, Perry's transfer request was accepted. In the fall of 2013, Russel began his senior year at Beaufort High. Perry said she thinks the email she sent to McCord convinced the district to approve the request.
"We were elated," she said. "We were high-fiving in the kitchen and calling relatives."
Perry said Russel would often come home and tell her when someone harassed him. But not all teenagers are as transparent. Many don't have personal conversations with their parents.
Lt. Alfredo Givens, who oversees the Sheriff's Office's school resource officers, said parents should immediately report bullying. If it happens at school, report it to school administrators. If it happens elsewhere, talk to the parents of the bully. If that's uncomfortable, parents can ask law enforcement to intercede.
"This is something that you don't want to escalate and definitely something that you don't want to ignore," Givens said.
McCord said parents must be vigilant in checking their children's Facebook and Instagram postings, Twitter accounts, any social media their child uses.
"Parents should not accept not knowing passwords," he said. "They should not accept not being friended."
He said he has heard too many parents say they want to respect their children's right to privacy -- a right he does not think parents should give until their children are adults.
"If we're going to be responsible in raising kids, we have to be prepared to make them know that their discomfort is for our comfort and knowing that we are safeguarding them from whatever ills society may have."
This includes having difficult conversations about suicide and the effects of bullying.
Richard Lieberman, a school psychologist, consultant and expert with the National Association of School Psychologists, said bullying is a clear associated risk factor for suicide.
"Discussing the risk factors doesn't put ideas of suicide in their heads," he said.
'LITTLE THINGS ADD UP'
Since transferring to Beaufort High School, Russel said he hasn't been bullied. He's active in the school's drama program, which has traveled around South Carolina and beyond presenting the anti-bullying play "If You See Something, Say Something."
Perry wishes she had pushed for the transfer to Beaufort High sooner.
"I think if I'd paid attention sooner and taught Russel different ways to deal with it, it may have helped," she said. "But parents need to listen to their kids and don't think it's something little, because all these little things add up. ... Go and talk to somebody at the school about it immediately, and stop it before it gets to be too much."