January 19, 2019. A day Tami Charles will never forget.
On a snow-covered Saturday morning, Charles went to the grocery store and returned to find that her 10-year-old son, Seven Bridges, had taken his own life.
"As I stood up, I looked over my shoulder and I saw the back of my son hanging from a noose that he had made from his belt," she said. "Until that day, the word suicide had never been said in our home."
How did this happen? How did a young child full of love and laughter get to the point where he felt that suicide was his only option?
His mother believes bullying is to blame.
Three years after his death, FOCUS investigator Heather Fountaine spoke to Charles again and pressed the school district to get those answers.
"My most amazing dude": The life of Seven Bridges
Seven was born on July 25, 2008, to Tami Charles and her husband, Donnie Bridges. He was their miracle baby.
As a teenager, Charles was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), which put a question mark on whether she would ever feel the joy of motherhood. But three years after she and her husband got married, she got a surprise diagnosis from her doctor: she was pregnant.
"At that moment - God chose me to be in charge of his gift," she said.
However, Seven's introduction into the world was not an easy one. He was born with an impro imperforate anus, a birth defect that happens in one out of every 5,000 people. He had to wear a colostomy bag and had 26 surgeries, but none of it stopped Seven from being a kid.
"My husband I had never made [his condition] a handicap," Charles said.
While Seven didn't make a big deal about his condition, Charles said other people did. She told WHAS11 about multiple incidents, involving students, where Seven was teased, harassed and even physically attacked.
Allegations and investigations: What happened to Seven?
In September 2018, Tami Charles and Seven Bridges sat down with WHAS11 to talk about an incident on the school bus ride home from Kerrick Elementary. Charles said her son was called the N-word and was choked by another student sitting on the same seat.
"I still can't get him choking me out of my head," 10-year-old Seven said.
When Charles went to the school to get answers, she said she was given the run-around by the assistant principal.
"No referral, no incident report, no paperwork,” she said.
Paperwork for the August 27th incident was eventually filed, but not for another two days. According to documents obtained from JCPS, the report does not indicate that any racial slurs were used.
JCPS declined to share the video of the incident, but a photo obtained by WHAS11 shows Seven in a headlock. According to the report, he was choked for nine seconds.
The report says the bus driver stopped the bus and asked Seven if he was okay. Seven said yes, and the report says he showed "no obvious distress." The incident was labeled as "horseplay" in the JCPS investigation.
The report says the two students were not immediately separated.
"My son still had to sit next to his attacker," Charles said.
PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Mother challenges JCPS after alleged bullying incident on bus
Renee Murphy was the Chief of Communications for JCPS at the time of Seven's death. She said district policy is to conduct a "thorough review" of any incident that is brought to their attention.
When referencing the school bus incident, she referred to the district's handbook for the definition of horseplay.
Horseplay is defined by JCPS as roughhousing, pushing, running, excessive play, etc., that are not appropriate or safe in the school environment.
In the interview with WHAS11 News days later, Seven seemed hopeful.
"I know that I can get it out of my mind, and tomorrow is like a better day, so I can still make friends with him," he said.
An investigation into the handling of the incident, specifically by Assistant Principal Jeremy Jenkins, was launched about a week later.
Charles had significant concerns with the manner in which she felt the incident had been addressed by the bus driver and school administration. She alleged, according to the report, that Jenkins was "dismissive and condescending" towards her and her husband when they tried to address the situation at separate times.
According to the report, Jenkins told Charles he did not have the authority to show her the footage from the school bus but informed the bus driver that Seven and the other child would be separated.
The investigator found the allegations that Jenkins did not properly handle the incident to be unsubstantiated.
The next incident, involving name-calling and insults, happened about three months later on November 29. According to JCPS documents, two girls were accused of singing a song about Seven smelling badly. The incident was logged as bullying and the girls were suspended from the bus temporarily.
Charles said the trouble continued at school - one incident in the report provided by JCPS reveals more name-calling on the playground where a student said Seven "smells like the 'S-word.'"
Charles said Seven went to his teacher for help, and Charles claims the teacher told Seven to keep his complaints to himself because "nobody likes a tattletale."
Charles said that conversation happened the day before Seven took his life, and alleges he was singled out by school staff in the weeks leading up to January 19.
"He felt like nobody could help him," she said.
Murphy said she had no "direct knowledge" of a complaint involving the teacher, but said the district will investigate any claims that are brought to school officials.
"We encourage our families to make sure they communicate their concerns directly with us," she said.
In December 2018, Kerrick Elementary Principal Lawanda Hazard filed a lawsuit against JCPS claiming disability and racial discrimination.
The lawsuit describes the "level of emotional abuse" at the hands of Dr. Glenn Baete, the assistant superintendent, and other employees as "unrelenting," forcing her to seek medical treatment for anxiety and depression.
Attorneys for the district filed a response two weeks later, denying those allegations. After three years, the case was settled in November 2021 and the claims against JCPS were dismissed.
"It is important to us to make sure that we have a positive school culture and climate, that we are a welcoming environment, and one that is supportive of our students and staff," Murphy said.
Seven was the 8th student within JCPS to take his own life during the 2018-19 school year. In total, 9 students died by suicide that year. There are about 100,000 students in the district.
"I think JCPS is culpable," Charles said, when asked if JCPS was at fault. "I think that we learned a lot with this. I think the system is at fault."
"He's the superhero for them.": Seven's legacy
Seven's death sparked an immediate response from the school district. Less than a week after his suicide, JCPS Superintendent Dr. Marty Pollio announced plans for a summit on bullying and suicide prevention.
The summit took place the following year, in March 2019 and Murphy said it was a "really powerful experience."
"I think everyone walked away feeling more equipped and more prepared," Murphy said.
There has been additional training since then and Murphy said it goes above and beyond what the state requires - including training elementary teachers in suicide prevention.
"My kid was not the first, people have told me so," Tami Charles said. "And he's not the last. But his story was the one that was chosen to make this kind of impact."
Seven's impact caught the world's attention. Thousands with similar medical conditions let their bags out, speaking up for #SevenStrong.
The hashtags were more than just a trend for Charles - they became her purpose, to fight for those like Seven.
Seven will never be able to grow up, but the 10-year-old did manage to fulfill at least one dream.
"He always said he wanted to be a superhero, and he has saved so many friends," Charles said. "He deserves to wear his cape. For people to know that he is the champion. He's the superhero for them."
In the last three years, Charles has been a part of several events to raise awareness for suicide prevention, including the Walk Out of Darkness even held in Louisville.
If you notice any bullying, here's how you can report it:
Head to the JCPS website and select the red exclamation point in the upper right-hand corner. A simple click will let you immediately notify JCPS staff of any unacceptable behavior.
The feature was added after Seven's death in 2019, in the hopes of helping kids like him - before it's too late.
Seven Bridges' story is included in "A Different Cry", a digital series that focuses on the rising suicide rate of Black youth in America. The series will be released on our Roku and Fire TV streaming apps this Sunday, Jan. 23.
On Tuesday, February 1, we'll premiere a 30-minute special on our streaming apps. Download the WHAS11 app on your Roku or Amazon Fire TV device today.