JOHNSBURG, Ill. – Nancy Walz carries a handkerchief with her everywhere she goes. She uses it often when she talks about her oldest son, Scott.
Scott Walz would have turned 21 this year.
He committed suicide just three months before graduating from Johnsburg High School. Scott was 18 when he died of "bullycide," his mother said. After nine years of being a punching bag for bullies, he just couldn't take it anymore.
Scott was in third grade when the bullying began. By the time it escalated, it already was too late. The damage was done.
Socially, Scott was an easy target. He was shy and quiet. He had speech and language difficulties that made him talk and process information slower than his peers.
In junior high, martial arts became his safe haven.
At the same time, when his peers found out about his martial arts abilities, the fights got tougher, Nancy Walz said.
Scott's first suicide attempt was when he was just 12 years old. Nancy and her husband, David Walz, had the sixth-grader hospitalized and reached out to school officials, some of whom turned a deaf ear, Nancy Walz said. There were others who did all they could to help him.
"My son would have died a lot sooner if those people hadn't helped," she said. "Because of them, we had a lot more time with our son."
She later added: "The school and community has an obligation to protect our kids. Our kids shouldn't be walking into a war zone. This is not just kids being kids."
In junior high, the bullying turned increasingly violent. He was choked to the point of passing out. He was slammed into lockers. But it was the verbal assaults, Nancy Walz said, that cut deeper. Once word got out about his suicide attempt, his was labeled "suicide boy."
"In his note, taking his last breath, [he was] thinking he was a freak, a creeper, all the things people said about him," she said, bringing the handkerchief up to her eyes to dry her tears. "He died thinking that, and I can never get over that."
Scott suffered from major depression as a direct result of the trauma from bullying, his mom said. He was anxious about going to school. He stopped turning in his homework and doing chores. He started having major panic attacks.
"He didn't have the emotional strength anymore. He didn't have hope," Nancy Walz said, taking a pause to collect herself. "He couldn't believe anymore.
Scott lived his life by a code of honor, one that couldn't be broken no matter how hard the hits or how cruel the taunts. As a second-degree black belt, Scott often defended other students who were bullied. In November 2008, he again tried suicide.
"That's when I knew my son might die," Nancy Walz said.
On March 4, 2010, there was something not right with Scott. Up in his bedroom, his younger sister, Emilie, a then-15-year-old at Johnsburg High School, found her older brother – it's a chilling image that she'll never forget.
But Emilie and her twin brother, Ryan, now seniors at Johnsburg High School, have not let Scott's death contaminate their hearts. Alongside her mother, Emilie Walz has become outspoken about teen depression and bullying.
"I do believe schools are trying to help, but I don't think they're doing enough," Emilie Walz said.
She and Ryan wear rubber bracelets in Scott's memory that are stamped with three words that he lived by: honor, restraint and respect. The twins try to do the same.
For now, all the family has left are smiling pictures of Scott, but they hold close memories of their older brother and first-born son – the light-saber duels, the Nazi-zombie video games, a well-loved Cubs hat, a Queen song on the radio.
"My son is so much more than his tragedy," Nancy Walz said.
They believe Scott walks with them on their journey, and is looking down on them and smiling at the people they've become.
"I told Scott everything I ever wanted to say to him because I never knew when it would be the last day he was going to have here," Nancy Walz said. "[If he was here today], I would say that I'm proud of you and you are my hero."