TAYLORSVILLE — Classmates of a Bennion Junior High School student who took his own life Thursday described him as "playful," "always smiling" but mistreated at times by others.
"He was nice to everyone, even if sometimes people weren't nice to him," said Bennion ninth-grader Brandon Newby.
Granite School District officials say the 14-year-old student shot himself on a pedestrian overpass near the school about 3 p.m. in the presence of other students.
District spokesman Ben Horsley said the boy left school around 1:30 p.m. with his mother. He returned after about an hour and met several other students on the overpass over 6200 South at 2700 West, Horsley said.
The overpass is located on the southwest corner of school property but is separated from the main building by a sports field. The shooting took place roughly 15 minutes after school let out, Horsley said.
The student was transported to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead, Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal said. There were several other students nearby at the time of the shooting, Hoyal said.
"For anybody, let alone a student, to witness something like this, it's pretty traumatic," he said.
Police on Thursday night were still investigating how the boy obtained the gun, as well as the motivation behind the incident.
Grief counselors were made available to students and families dealing with the tragedy, Horsley said.
Students trickled back to the school throughout the evening, walking slowly to the bridge that became a makeshift memorial and gathering for a candlelight vigil. A dozen students soon became hundreds, and after the bridge became impassable, the group moved down to the sports field.
At times they smiled and played, as if forgetting their pain for a moment, but somber faces and shaky embraces prevailed throughout the night.
Newby and fellow ninth-grader Junior Estrada were visiting with teachers at Bennion after school Thursday. They walked outside and said they were shocked to learn their friend was dead.
"I was talking to him today," Newby said. "We were joking at lunchtime, and he seemed happy. I wouldn't have expected it."
Estrada and Newby returned to the school to talk to teachers and attempt to understand the heartbreaking news. As they talked, they began sending text messages, which were soon shared on social media, inviting other students to come to the school Thursday night to remember their classmate.
"I sent out a big text to everyone who goes to Bennion or might have known him, (saying) even if you weren't great friends with him, to still come and pay your respects," Newby said.
Estrada said he hopes the tragedy helps teenagers understand that bullying has consequences.
"We have to stop all of this," Estrada said. "It's going around too much, and not just here, but around the world. … One thing you say can affect their whole life. It can be in their brain forever."
Bennion students were joined by youth from neighboring schools throughout the night. Tears flowed as they stood sometimes alone and other times in small groups on the field. A few parents hovered around the edge of the group.
Eventually the groups came together, forming what was meant to be a circle but inadvertently resembled a heart, as the students stood in a moment of silence. In the background, the faint glow of candles flickered from the top of the bridge.
Ninth-graders Makayla Schmidt and Ponia Clark said they came to the vigil not only in remembrance of the boy they had come to know in their classes, but also to support a friend who witnessed the tragedy. The gathering at the school gave students a chance to mourn together, Clark said.
"I knew (him) really well, and I think other people needed comfort as well as me,” she said said, her voice trembling as she looked around at the group. “I needed to find a place where I could cry.”
Schmidt said bullying is sometimes hard to see, especially when it is done through cruel words.
“I heard it, people (talking about him),” she said. “I don't think people realize how much words can hurt.”
Some mourners remained for more than an hour, while others stayed only a few moments. Schmidt said she wasn't surprised by the crowd.
“Everyone knew him,” she said. “He talked to everyone. He was so friendly.”
Renee Keomannong, a 10th-grader at Cottonwood High School, said she knew the boy from her time at Bennion. She and a group of friends wept as they spoke about mistreatment they'd witnessed in school.
"No one stood up for him," Keomannong said. "But now that something bad has happened, they finally came."
Contributing: Benjamin Wood
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