Tyson McKinley’s bedroom has remained messy and untouched since his mother, Janell McKinley, emptied drawers looking for something that should not exist: appropriate clothes for a 15-year-old to wear at his funeral.
The bed is unmade. In one corner of the room rest poster board displays created for the funeral covered with pictures of a smiling Tyson. There’s a tin of sports trading cards on the floor. Shelves are filled with books, model helicopters, trucks and archery trophies. There’s a poster detailing different types of sharks next to which a snake skin is pinned to the wall.
There are piles of clothes, washed and folded but not put away; a motorcycle helmet Tyson never got to wear; and golf clubs he planned to use in the fall on the high school team.
Janell McKinley looks around the room, her gaze stopping on a folded, blue towel with medical shears on top.
“Those are the scissors I cut him down with,” Janell McKinley said. She’s silent for nearly a full minute, and then begins talking about the day her son took his own life — Sept. 20.
Janell McKinley, a licensed practical nurse, was in her last few months at Lorain County Community College to be a registered nurse when Tyson died.
She arrived at her Wellington home late the night before his death after studying with friends, wished Tyson and her two daughters goodnight and went to bed with her husband, Kenneth.
The next morning it was life as usual, getting ready for work and prodding her children to get ready for school.
“I came in and it was like, he was always just lying in bed, and I said, ‘Tyson, I have your medicine.’ And then sometimes he would like, roll out of bed and just bring his pillow down with him. So I remember I walked over here … he wasn’t there and then I turned around and I saw his shoes,” Janell McKinley said, crying. “Then all hell breaks loose.”
Often after a suicide, people say they wish they’d had known there was something wrong. In Tyson’s case, it seems everyone knew.
Tyson McKinley was a freshman at Wellington High School when he died by suicide in September.
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His depression was well documented in evaluations by teachers and the school psychologist. Tyson would often talk to his parents about thoughts of suicide. And in the weeks before he hanged himself in his bedroom closet, a doctor warned the family to look for signs of his depression worsening because it could be a side effect of a recent increase in dosage of Guanfacine, a drug used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Tyson’s issues in school started around the second grade.
It was then when doctors diagnosed him with ADHD and he ended up repeating the year, putting him in the same grade with his now-14-year-old sister, Audrey.
Things at school continued to get worse year after year. Though he desperately wanted to make friends, he complained about bullying and feeling isolated. He was home-schooled for most of sixth grade, returning to McCormick Middle School in seventh grade.
During an evaluation for an individualized education program, Tyson told educators he wanted to become a video game designer and played video games in his free time. He loved gym class, but he hated art.
In eighth grade, a test determined Tyson was reading at the grade equivalent of a fourth-grader and failing in several other areas. He was on the wrestling and track team, but was barred from both in high school because of poor grades and numerous detentions for his behavioral issues.
On March 3, the evaluation team decided Tyson had symptoms of a thought disorder.
The functional behavioral assessment, detailed in confidential documents provided by his father, described it like this: “He hears and sees things that other people around him do not. He interprets/perceives events differently because of this. His behaviors cause others to gravitate away from him even though Tyson desires to be included in events/groups/friendships. The triggers for this behavior are internal, the intensity and frequency of the behavior is proportionate to how much Tyson feels alienated or prevented from doing what he thinks is just.”
In an earlier report, a teacher described Tyson as “unhappy most of the time. He shows intense ‘highs’ of energy followed by periods of sadness or depression.”
Using a form called the Achenbach Child Behavior Checklist, the evaluation team said Tyson exhibited significant emotional problems and was unable to get his mind off certain ideas, had strange ideas and behaviors, feared he will do something bad, was nervous and hypersensitive to criticism.
Tyson told evaluators that he often felt targeted by others and made bad decisions and acted on impulses that he later regretted.
The evaluation team concluded Tyson was eligible for special education because he qualified in the category of “emotional disturbance,” which the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act defines as someone with an inability to learn or build relationships with peers and teachers, inappropriate types of behavior or feelings under normal circumstances and a general pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression.
Basically, the report concluded that Tyson had the ability to learn and succeed, but his emotional issues got in the way.
Kenneth McKinley views documents regarding his son, Tyson McKinley, at his kitchen table on Tuesday afternoon. Tyson died by suicide Sept. 20.
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Because of all this, the McKinleys say they pushed for Tyson to go to Education Alternatives in Elyria, but the requests fell on deaf ears. The school doubles as a counseling and treatment center for children whose emotions are out of control.
“He always said that at times he wanted to hang himself, or he wished he was dead because he was so tired of everything,” his father, Kenneth McKinley, said. “He was treated with medicine because of his issues, but the school faculty wasn’t looking at him as a child of special needs, they were addressing him as a regular child.”
Tyson was suspended multiple times over the years for some of his behavioral issues, keeping him out of school for days at a time.
Kenneth McKinley thinks if the school — which was under different leadership with the resignation of the principal and the hiring of a new superintendent — took the warning signs seriously, his son would be thriving in a different environment.
“We had a new superintendent and he was saying he needed more documentation and we kept saying, we have all this documentation, what else could you possibly need?” Kenneth McKinley said. “(School psychologist) Dr. (John) Zbornik was even saying we can’t help him anymore than what we’re doing. We can keep trying different avenues, but this kid needs one-on-one help and more than we can provide.
“I think it was clear, he’s a very nice, bright kid but he’s lacking something. He’s struggling in his own mind about how he can’t control himself,” McKinley continued. “A lot of trauma could have been avoided if the school district did what they were supposed to do. If they took Dr. Zbornik more seriously, my son would be in a happy place. Without a doubt he would be doing very successfully.”
Kenneth McKinley said Tyson would come home feeling hopeless because he ended up in detention again for issues he felt were beyond his control.
“He came home crying, ‘It’s no use. They’re not going to send me to that school,’” Kenneth McKinley said.
Beyond his diagnoses, Tyson was a friendly kid who so much wanted to fit in.
Janell McKinley looks at a photo button of her son Tyson McKinley, a 9th grader who died by suicide in September.
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“Tyson actually didn’t know a stranger,” Janell McKinley said. “Every single person he would walk up to and greet. The whole neighborhood knew him.”
Where the family lives on state Route 511 in Wellington, houses are few and far between but Tyson found a way to connect with everyone.
Janell McKinley described him as someone who seemed to be propelled by a motor, always running, climbing trees, putzing around the house. He sang in a choir and was in 4-H, anything to be part of a group.
He was deeply involved in Wellington First Baptist Church and often had long talks with the youth pastor, but in school he felt alone.
“He would come home at different times and say kids were picking on him,” Janell McKinley said. “I don’t think kids knew how they were being mean, just because they viewed him as different. He was his own person and really wasn’t part of a group.”
The day before he killed himself, Kenneth McKinley said Tyson’s bus driver wouldn’t let him on because there was no room — so he walked the 6 miles home. Earlier in the day he had been tripped in the hallways and some kids kicked his books.
Then when he got home, he was in trouble for not doing his chores so Kenneth McKinley told him he couldn’t go to church the next day.
“I’m trying not to blame myself. Everyone’s telling me not to blame myself and this is just a real bad situation,” Kenneth McKinley said. “I just wish I knew more about what troubled him. I wish he would have came to me. I know he knows I love him and he loves me, but I was hard on him at times but that was me being a parent.
“There are times when I kick myself. A few weeks prior he would come up to me with an Xbox controller. I look back, why couldn’t I just give him a little bit of time? Why was I such an idiot and pushed him away even when he begged and pleaded for some play time with his dad.”
The family is struggling to find a new path forward.
Kenneth McKinley was a military policeman and in the Marine Corps. Locally, he was on the Wellington Police Auxiliary and Wellington Fire Department. Now, he works as a diesel technician.
He’s receiving counseling through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and his wife and daughters, Audrey and 16-year-old Caitlyn, are seeking help through The Nord Center.
Still, there are days Kenneth McKinley can’t get out of bed, Janell McKinley doesn’t go to work and his daughters stay home from school. They mourn. They get angry. They wish things were different.
Catching the signs
On Nov. 6 the Wellington Board of Education held a meeting to hear presentations from two groups, the Diversity Center of Northeast Ohio and LifeAct, in response to Tyson’s suicide and what educators in the district feel is a culture of bullying.
Superintendent Ed Weber said he’s hoping to get one or both of them set up in the district by the spring.
With the Diversity Center, the focus would be on restorative justice and creating an environment where everyone feels heard and welcome. With the LifeAct, it’s about recognizing the signs of depression and creating a space where people feel like they can speak up and get help.
Tyson wasn’t the only one in the district to experience bullying as a result of being different.
So far this school year, there have been four complaints of bullying at the high school, 47 complaints at McCormick and zero complaints at Westwood Elementary School.
Weber said at McCormick, of the 47 complaints investigated, seven were actual bullying and 40 received other disciplinary actions. At the high school, none of the complaints turned out to be bullying and all four complaints received other disciplinary action.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, these local and national agencies can help:
- In Lorain County, call the Lorain County Board of Mental Health hotline at (800) 888-6161.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK (8255); www.suicideprevention
Other resources available offering support, prevention and education information include:
After Tyson’s death, his parents gave the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office a note left on his bed and his cell phone to look through text messages for signs of whether bullying contributed to his death. In early October, the Sheriff’s Office closed the investigation saying there was nothing to substantiate claims that bullying was a contributing factor.
But Weber is the first to say it is an issue that needs to be dealt with.
“Every student is so unique and obviously Tyson didn’t get all the support he needed, and we want to do a better job,” Weber said. “Maybe this wasn’t a classic case of how they define bullying legally, but I would want even more as far as a supportive, caring environment for every student.”
“I think that those numbers are obvious signs that the middle school has some bullying culture at least in regard to how students are feeling,” Weber said. “My goal is to make every classroom a warm and welcoming classroom where every student belongs.”
Kenneth McKinley sat at a lunch table in the Westwood Elementary School cafeteria during the presentations with tears in his eyes and two days later held a meeting with the board to discuss his concerns, saying families feel don’t feel like enough is being done.
“That’s my goal … to get ourselves and the school to a point where we can educate the public and we can pull in the parents and say, hey we can offer more trainings so parents can be better parents, whether it’s classes on suicide awareness or how to communicate better with your child,” Kenneth McKinley said. “I personally, as a parent, blame it on how we’re raising our kids at home. We’re not setting the core values like we should and we don’t appreciate life like we should.”
Kenneth McKinley said he left the meeting with the Board of Education feeling good, but knowing there’s a lot of work ahead.
“In my eyes, what’s done is done. We can’t change the past, but we can definitely change the future,” Kenneth McKinley said. “I think all of us (in the meeting) … at one point were in tears. I feel ashamed that I failed as a parent in some areas and I feel ashamed that I didn’t bring stuff up last year where I should have or could have. I know they feel really bad … but we’re all on the same page. We all want change. We all want the best for our community and we want to move forward.”
TYSON MCKINLEY MEMORIAL 5K RUN
The Tyson McKinley Memorial 5K run and 1-mile walk will start 9:15 a.m. Saturday at the former site of McCormick Middle School, 201 S. Main St., and finish at Wellington High School, 629 N. Main St.
At the request of his family, the race has been organized to highlight the effects of bullying and raise awareness about mental health and promote suicide prevention. The 1-mile walk will start at 9:15 a.m., the 5K at 9:30 a.m. Advance registration is $20; registration can be made at wellingtonroadraces.org. Cost is $25 the day of the event, with registration beginning at 8 a.m.
Race shirts will be given to all runners who preregister and while supplies last for those registering on the day of the race. The proceeds will go to the McKinley family, SADD, a Lorain County 4-H club and the formation of a scholarship in Tyson’s name.
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