Phillip Spruill Jr. was only 11 years old.
He was still in elementary school. A baby, really.
On Friday, the fifth grader ended his life before it had even begun. One of his younger brothers made the grim discovery Friday evening.
There were signs he was struggling.
“We knew there were problems and we tried to keep encouraging him,” said Linda Lash-Smith, 56, Phillip’s grandmother. “We just did not realize how deep he was hurting."
According to his grandmother, Phillip had been suspended multiple times for fighting since transferring to Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary in September.
His family says the boy, who struggled with anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, had to defend himself against bullies who targeted him because of his larger-than-average size. He also protected his 7-year-old brother, who was often tormented as well.
School District spokesperson Lee Whack on Wednesday said the district and the Comegys school are deeply saddened by this tragedy.
“We always take reports of bullying seriously," he wrote in an email. “There were no founded instances of this child being bullied.”
Whack said grief counselors had been dispatched to the school to provide support for students.
I’ve been upset about this since I got the news Sunday. There’s something uniquely sad about a child who takes his own life. That little boy should still be alive, grumbling about schoolwork and twirling his lacrosse stick as he loved to do.
Normally, we don’t write about suicides for fear of spurring copycats. I am making an exception in Phillip’s case, though. Parents need to be aware that preteens even younger than Phillip can be at risk for this kind of thing.
Traditionally, more whites die from suicide than African Americans. However, when it comes to children ages 12 and under, black children reportedly die by suicide at twice the rate of their white peers, according to a 2018 study by the Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Phillip’s parents reportedly did the best they could, raising their close-knit family. Phillip Spruill Sr. works in a supermarket deli department; Linda Reese Spruill is a home health aide who’s also studying for her high school diploma. They have three other children, ages 7, 3, and 2, and live in Bartram Village in Southwest Philly.
Born during a difficult delivery on Jan. 5, 2008, Phillip wanted desperately to fit in.
“The best way to describe Phil was as a small, sensitive little boy in a heavy boy’s body,” Lash-Smith told me when I met with her Tuesday afternoon at the office of State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Phila.) in North Philadelphia’s Progress Plaza.
“He was very sensitive," she recalled sadly. "Even though he would try to act like nothing anyone said bothered him, it would hurt him to his core. But he didn’t show it. He didn’t want to show it outwardly and he didn’t want to worry mom and dad mostly with a lot of his pain, mostly because he knows mom and dad [were] fiercely protective of him and he didn’t want them being burdened.”
Then, on Friday, the unthinkable happened.
Suicide-prevention experts suggested I not reveal details about Phillip’s death, so I won’t. You never know what a vulnerable person’s triggers might be.
A viewing will take place from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday at Ford Memorial Temple, 4031 Germantown Ave., followed by a funeral at 6. Interment will be private. The family will dress in blue, Phillip’s favorite color. Kenyatta worked with three donors - Helen E. Waite Funeral Services, Woody’s bar, and Voyeur Nightclub - to offset funeral expenses.
His relatives hope that by sharing Phillip’s story, others will be spared the profound grief they are experiencing.