The heartbreaking true story of the gay teenager and his father behind ‘Joe Bell’

In April 2013, Joe Bell left his home in La Grande, a small town in northeastern Oregon, to cross the country on foot in honor of his 15-year-old son, Jadin, who died a few weeks earlier in February. after suicide attempt.

Bell and his wife, Lola Lathrop, told local and national media at the time that Jadin was bullied for being gay, both online and at school. After her son died in a Portland, Oregon hospital, Bell and family friends started Faces for Change, an anti-bullying organization. He planned to cross the country on foot to New York – where Jadin had spoken of living – and talk to students, school administrators and others about the effects of bullying.

Six months into his planned two-year walking trip, however, Bell was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on US 40, a two-lane highway in eastern Colorado.

The tragic family history inspired “Joe Bell”, a film which debuts Friday with Mark Wahlberg as Bell, Connie Britton as Lathrop and Reid Miller as Jadin.

The real story behind the film is complicated and “Joe Bell” attempts to portray the nuances of real life. Miller, 21, said that although Bell accepted his son, he didn’t really understand him and found it difficult to support him.

Bell told the Salon store after Jadin’s death that he felt somewhat responsible for not doing more to support his son and noted that he yelled at Jadin for smoking the night before he tried to kill himself .

The grieving father’s walk, and one of the film’s major themes, is about redemption, Miller said.

“I think Joe learned a lot about himself, and I feel like his legacy is that anyone can change… and that through love and understanding everyone can have a second chance,” said he declared. The film “is about redemption and returning to a place that is not easy to live with, but it is a place that you can always come out of with love and the good people around you.”

“A very special human being”

Jadin stood out in his small town of about 13,000 inhabitants. He was the only homosexual student at Lycée La Grande. He told his father that he wanted to one day move to New York to study fashion or photography, according to the New York Times.

Jadin’s older brother Dustin told NBC News he was “a very special human being.”

“I feel like no matter where he was or what room he walked into, he just turned it on,” Dustin said. “He was just very outgoing and very himself. “

Dustin, 32, says a memory he has of Jadin dates back to February 2008, the day before the older brother was sent into the military. The Bell family hosted a Super Bowl night to watch the New York Giants play against the New England Patriots, who were widely favorites to win.

“My brother loved to tease me,” Dustin said. “He’s very antagonistic, and because he was the youngest, he always got what he wanted.”

In the fourth quarter, Jadin was playing with the remote, “and I kept telling him to ‘put the remote, put the remote,’ and he never did,” he recalls.

Then Jadin dropped the remote. The TV turned off and the batteries in the remote control fell out. By the time they turned it back on, Dustin said, they missed the last minute and a half of the game, during which the Giants came back and won in what is considered one of the biggest upheavals of the game. history of sport.

Jadin looked shocked and quickly fled, he added.

Then, in February 2013, the day Jadin died, Dustin said his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers, were playing in the Super Bowl. In that game, the lights at the New Orleans Mercedes-Benz Superdome went out minutes after the Baltimore Ravens took the lead.

“It’s one of my favorite stories,” Dustin said. “I was like, ‘it’s just my brother playing with me again.'”

Dustin and Miller both said Jadin never shied away from being himself. Aside from being the only gay student at his school, he was also the only boy on the cheerleading squad, and Bell told Salon in 2013 that he was bullied for it.

Miller said he can relate to Jadin and his story because he was also bullied growing up in Texas. He was an artist “living in a place where it was either sport – football – or nothing,” and he was shorter than most people his age.

“It really touched me because, as a person who grew up in a small town who felt very misunderstood and… inaudible to friends and people outside of my family, [it] felt very isolating and very alienating, ”he said.

Reid Miller in a scene from “Joe Bell”.Quantrell D. Colbert / Roadside attractions

In order to prepare for the role, Miller said he listened to Jadin’s iPod and talked to his family and friends. He met Jadin’s mother while he was wearing his son’s clothes.

“Even though he was in so much pain and felt so alone, he was so strong in what he believed in and who he was, and it had such an impact on everyone around him and everyone around him. who I spoke to, “Miller said.

Dustin said he believes Miller did an amazing job capturing the essence of his brother in “Joe Bell”. He said the grieving process for his family was “continuous”, and he hopes the film will reach an audience that generally doesn’t think about these issues.

“I just hope it makes people be more open-minded, not to judge and to accept people from different walks of life more,” he said.

Lathrop released a statement to the La Grande School District prior to the film, writing that “not everything on screen has happened in real life.”

“But that misses the important message,” she said in the statement. “I hope the message this film sends will make us all more vigilant and inclined to protect the well-being of young people who deserve the opportunity to thrive.”

‘I know you’re with me on this walk’

Bell told Salon in 2013 that he and Jadin went to school about the bullying, but he said the school did not suspend one of the main bullies until three weeks after Jadin’s death. , and only after the student has started bullying someone else.

The La Grande School District did not respond to a request for comment regarding this incident, but in response to the film’s upcoming release, the district released a detailed statement on the resources it offers to students in crisis and to students in crisis. LGBTQ students seeking support. , like the board.

“Our district’s commitment is to ensure that we have a positive and inclusive school experience in which all students can flourish academically within a strong school community,” the district statement read. . “In addition, it is our responsibility as professionals to provide a safe and caring environment for every student. “

Additionally, an elder from La Grande launched the school’s first club for LGBTQ students in the spring of 2013, just months after Jadin passed away.

Jadin’s death was one of multiple suicides among LGBTQ youth that made national news at the time. On September 19, 2010, Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old gay man living in Southern California, committed suicide after being bullied. Three days later, Tyler Clementi, a gay student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, committed suicide after being taped on a webcam kissing another man. Two other teenagers, Kenneth Weishuhn, 14, and Josh Pacheco, 17, also committed suicide under similar circumstances.

Bell resigned from his job and began his walk in April 2013. He documented his journey on Facebook, where he wrote in May 2013, “I miss my son Jadin with all my heart and soul … I know you are with me. on this walk.

After Bell’s death, people took up his cause for him, sharing photos of themselves on Facebook on walks in his honor and to share his post.

Since then, more schools have adopted anti-bullying policies and better support systems for LGBTQ students, with some states codifying protections into law. At least 21 states have laws prohibiting bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the Movement Advancement Project, a nonprofit LGBTQ think tank. Other states prohibit harassment on the basis of sexual orientation only, have district-specific policies, or have no laws.

Bell also wanted schools to offer suicide prevention training to all counselors. As of 2021, about half of states require annual suicide prevention training for school staff, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Anthony Ramos, head of talent at GLAAD, an LGBTQ rights group, said the Bells story is important to see and understand.

“Given that the film is being directed by a high-profile, big-budget movie star and is now available to people in theaters, there is real potential for many to have their eyes peeled. disproportionate amount of bullying and harassment that so many LGBTQ youth endure and also witness the journey a parent has taken towards accepting their own child, and deep regret not having done so sooner, ”said Ramos in an emailed statement to NBC News.

Almost 70 percent of students reported experiencing verbal harassment at school because of their sexual orientation, and more than half reported experiencing this type of harassment because of their gender expression (57 percent) or their gender identity (54 percent), according to GLSEN, which advocates for LGBTQ students. Almost half of students also reported experiencing electronic harassment in 2019 via text messages or Facebook posts, also known as cyberbullying.

Miller said he also hopes all parents teach their children that words are powerful.

“Whether spoken or typed, words can be devastating, or they can save lives,” he said. “People have to understand that words carry weight and are really powerful and can deeply damage someone beyond repair.”

A 2019 survey by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit suicide prevention group for LGBTQ youth, found that young people who have at least one accepting adult in their life were 40% less likely to report a suicide attempt in the country. over the past year.

LGBTQ youth who face battles similar to Jadin’s, Miller said, should know that “there are people out there who love them and fight for them every day.”

“The fight is still going on and there will always be support, and I hope that one day we get to a place where we don’t have to fight this fight anymore, where everyone can feel free to be. who, what he wants, “he said. mentionned.

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