Ceejay Smith’s family didn’t know anything was wrong until it was too late. The Elk Lake eighth-grader smiled all the time. He wanted to be a storm chaser when he grew up. He hoped to get a television in his room for Christmas and a four-wheeler as a reward for being an honor roll student.
Earlier this month, the 13-year-old Springville Twp. resident took his own life, according to his family. Later, they found out Ceejay was being tormented by bullies after he tried to stand up for others the same antagonists targeted.
“I try to take solace in just thinking that God knew he was too good for this world, so he called him home,” his aunt, Rhonda Smith, said.
Smith lived next door to Ceejay and painted a vivid picture of her high-functioning autistic nephew as a larger-than-life personality who was highly intelligent, always eager to help others and easily recognized the good in everyone.
He was a great storyteller, enjoyed studying an eclectic mix of topics ranging from the weather to Lyme disease and made friends quickly, particularly during summers when Ceejay visited Montrose Campground.
“He would be the first one introducing himself,” Smith said. “He would always say, ‘This is my new friend so-and-so.’ It didn’t matter if they were 8 or 80. He didn’t care. He just liked people. … He had a lot of friends, more so before high school. I think high school sort of changed it. (Grades) seven through nine is the hardest transition for kids. It seems it’s also where they’re most cruel.”
Ceejay’s family is still learning about the events that led to his death and remains devastated by the loss. He leaves behind numerous relatives, including his mother, Rebecca, and father, Cory, three sisters and a brother.
State police are investigating Ceejay’s death as a suicide and are awaiting the Montour County coroner’s findings on the official cause of death, Trooper Mark Keyes said.
“Investigators are looking into the allegations of bullying and taking the matter seriously,” Keyes said in an email.
Smith said after losing her nephew, she received an outpouring of messages from students who were either bullied themselves at Elk Lake or saw others being bullied.
“My family feels, my brother and sister feel, that the school dropped the ball on this, that they knew of some of the problems and they never contacted the parents,” Smith said. “If other students are seeing it, the staff and faculty have to be seeing it.”
Elk Lake Superintendent Ken Cuomo said he knew Ceejay from when he was principal of the elementary school and liked him a lot, describing his former student as outgoing, happy-go-lucky, honest, easy to talk to and spunky.
Saying he doesn’t know all of the facts yet and citing privacy issues, Cuomo declined to address the specifics of the situation but said in general, the district has a vigorous framework in place to combat bullying.
Measures he cited include the nationally recognized Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, having a crisis counselor on staff and providing training and lessons for staff and students.
“This loss is felt by people at all levels,” Cuomo said. “I’m hoping in the future we can get together with the immediate family to see if there is anything we missed — things that were reported or not reported — and if there is a way to improve what we do. … Things like this make you reflect. It’s been hard on everybody, and I just can’t imagine being the parents.”
Ceejay’s family is trying to use the tragedy to bring awareness to suicide and bullying with the #BEAHERO movement. They also want bullies to consider how much and how many people their actions hurt. They’re encouraging bystanders to take a stand against bullying and victims to seek help.
They are also raising money — www.gofundme.com/beahero-ceejay-smiths-be-a-voice— for a scholarship to be called the Ceejay Smith Humanitarian Award for students in Susquehanna and Wyoming counties who take a stand against bullying.
“His life has got to count for something,” Smith said. “It’s got to matter. It can’t be in vain. Something good has to come from this, not just senseless tragedy. … If we can just get one bully to step back and think, ‘I don’t want to do this,’ or get one person to stand up and say, ‘We’re over this,’ or one kid not committing suicide by seeing how much pain their family would go through, then we’ve done our job.”