PELHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – When Avri Gillispie walked across the stage as a graduate of Pelham High School, she thought the trauma was coming to an end. Gillispie had finished her senior year remotely, pushed out of the school by bullying that had intensified into death threats and physical intimidation.
As she walked across the stage, Gillispie felt that things were looking up. Her high school experience, as troubling as it had been, was over and she would be able to head to Jacksonville State University to study nursing, leaving the pressures of Pelham behind.
On Monday, that optimism came to a crashing halt when Gillispie picked up her yearbook from Pelham High School. Under her senior portrait was the quote Gillispie had chosen – but only part of it. Gillispie’s senior quote had been changed from what she’d submitted.
“I would rather be a little nobody than to be an evil somebody” the quote was supposed to say. But what appeared in the yearbook’s final copy left out the first half of the quote.
“To be an evil somebody,” the final copy of the yearbook said.
When Gillispie saw that the quote had been changed, her heart sank. All the pain and trauma she’d experienced at Pelham High came flooding back. In a statement, Pelham City Schools said that distribution of the yearbooks has been stopped. An investigation “including digital forensics” is underway, the system said.
“We’re very sorry for the hurt and frustration this situation has caused the student and her family,” the statement said in part. “We’re still gathering information, and we will refrain from further comment on the situation until we complete an investigation.”
Avri and her mom said they wish the solution to this issue was as simple as reprinting a yearbook. Pelham High School – and Pelham City Schools – should more directly and firmly address bullying and its impact, the family said, not hide behind yet another investigation of behavior the family said the school has been aware of for months.
When the bullying began her freshman year at Pelham, Avri Gillispie shrugged it off. Gillispie had broken up with her boyfriend at the time, and another girl began dating him. The girl began sending Gillispie photos of the couple holding hands.
“It was just kind of dumb girl stuff,” Gillispie said.
During her sophomore year, similar behavior continued. Girls began editing photos of Avri and posting them on social media. According to Gillispie, school officials did little if anything to address the situation.
When senior year rolled around, the bullying escalated to a point where Gillispie felt her safety was at risk. Someone dumped lime green paint into Gillispie’s bag, covering her laptop and her schoolwork. The bag’s straps had also been cut.
Gillispie approached the cheer coach, explaining the situation and asking for help. The coach’s response, Gillispie said, amounted to gaslighting and the situation didn’t improve.
The bullying soon moved back to social media, where individuals began tagging Gillispie in photos, labeling her a “homewrecking w—–.”
Then the calls began. Some were just prank calls, Gillispie said, easy enough to shake off. But it didn’t stop there. Soon, Gillispie was receiving 10 calls a night, and the tone shifted.
“They were telling me I should just kill myself,” she said. “That I’m a worthless person.”
Gillispie’s parents got involved. They contacted the school and filed a police report.
Eventually, the school asked Gillispie and another girl to sign paperwork saying they would not contact each other. Gillispie signed the paper. Maybe this, she thought, would lower the temperature.
It wouldn’t. Gillispie, who’d been a cheerleader throughout high school, was still forced to stand by her bully in the cheer line. The bully’s friends, Gillispie said, would taunt her during the cheers.
“She got her friends to do her dirty work,” Gillispie said.
Other cheerleaders and friends Gillispie had relationships with for years began to ostracize her.
“I got booed while I was walking out to go cheer on multiple occasions,” she said.
When school got out each afternoon, girls would be waiting in the parking lot by Avri’s car. They’d call her names. They’d make jokes about special needs children, knowing Gillispie’s brothers faced significant challenges. Gillispie tried to cope. She would sit in the bathroom after school dismissed, crying, hoping to wait out the “mean girls” she knew would be waiting for her outside.
“It had become much more than just kids being kids,” she said.
During Christmas break, Gillispie told her mom that she wished she could just disappear.
“I’ve tried to remain calm,” she remembers telling her mother. “Going to school is going to kill me.”
It broke her mother’s heart.
“This is a girl who works so hard to be someone that we could be proud of,” Avri’s mom, Misty Gillispie, said, her voice cracking. “She worked so hard for that, and in a split second, a bully can decide that my daughter just doesn’t deserve that anymore.”
Bullying’s impact on Avri Gillispie was significant. Avri, who’d never suffered from anxiety or depression, was now visiting multiple therapists, trying her best to cope with the situation in whatever way she could.
The Gillispie family told school officials that something had to change. The school offered Avri a so-called “504,” a blueprint that would allow the system to better support Gillispie. The main aspect of the plan? Remote learning. So in early 2022, with just months left until graduation, Avri moved to online schooling.
The transition was difficult. It was hard for Avri to focus on her work. Her grades, which had been As and Bs, became scattered with Ds and Fs. But she pushed through.
When the time for graduation came, Avri wasn’t sure if she wanted to walk across the stage or not. But for herself and her family, she did. Once she cross the stage, diploma in hand, she said she was flooded with relief. Her nightmare, she thought, was over.
Months later, though, Avri Gillispie said she’s back at square one. The editing of her senior quote, she said, was a final farewell she didn’t need and her heart sank when she read it.
“This is how people will look back and remember me,” Gillispie said.
The quote she’d chosen was meant to be a signal of hope and perseverance to those who had caused Avri so much pain. In the end, though, it became just another means for her bullies to attack her.
For its part, Pelham City Schools has not commented on the history of bullying aimed at Gillispie. In correspondence with Gillispie’s parents, school officials had said that the issue was being investigated on multiple occasions.
After Gillispie was confronted in the school’s parking lot, the system said that school administrators “found evidence to support the incident Avri encountered.” The issue, the system said, “has been addressed with the teacher in the classroom.”
Pelham City Schools said in a statement sent to CBS 42 that the distribution of the yearbooks will be halted.
“We’re very sorry for the hurt and frustration this situation has caused the student and her family,” the statement said. “We have stopped distribution of the yearbooks so we can correct the problem. Anytime there’s an allegation of bullying we take it very seriously. As soon as the issue was brought to our attention, we began an investigation, including digital forensics, to determine the facts. We’re still gathering information, and we will refrain from further comment on the situation until we complete the investigation.”
Misty and Avri Gillispie said they are beyond the point of putting their faith in the school system’s “investigations.”
“I wish it was as simple as an isolated incident,” Gillispie said. “I wish it was as easy as reprinting a yearbook. I wish that I could heal every hurt, erase every tear, and give my daughter back every single day she was made to feel humiliated, abandoned, and scared within the walls of a school she once loved so much. Unfortunately, not all wishes come true.”
Still, Misty Gillispie said, her family remains hopeful.
“What our family remains steadfast in is HOPE! Hope that sharing Avri’s story will ignite lasting change at Pelham City Schools,” Gillispie said. “Hope that those responsible and the administration that failed her will take responsibility and work diligently to correct their behavior and response.”
Avri Gillispie said that despite the pain they caused her, she still has hope for her bullies.
“I just hope that one day they can look back and understand that their actions cause pain to others,” she said. “They have no clue what people are going through, and they have no clue how what they do and what they say can affect people for the rest of their lives.”