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The heartbreaking true story of the gay teen and his dad behind ‘Joe Bell’

In April 2013, Joe Bell left his home in La Grande, a small town in the northeast corner of  Oregon, to walk across the country in honor of his 15-year-old son, Jadin, who had died in February a few weeks after attempting suicide.

Bell and his wife, Lola Lathrop, told local and national news outlets at the time that Jadin was bullied for being gay, both online and at school. After his son’s death in a hospital in Portland, Oregon, Bell and family friends started Faces for Change, an anti-bullying organization. He planned to walk across the country to New York City — where Jadin had talked about living — and speak to students, school administrators and  others about the effects of bullying.

Six months into his planned two-year journey by foot, however, Bell was struck and killed by a tractor-trailer on U.S. 40, a two-lane highway in eastern Colorado.

The family’s tragic story inspired “Joe Bell,” a movie debuting Friday starring Mark Wahlberg as Bell, Connie Britton as Lathrop and Reid Miller as Jadin.

The true story behind the film is complicated, and “Joe Bell” attempts to portray the real-life nuances. Miller, 21, said that while Bell accepted his son, he didn’t really understand him, and he struggled to support him. 

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

The grieving father’s walk, and one of the major themes of the movie, 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 through understanding, everyone can be given a second chance,” he said. The film “is about redemption and about coming back from a place that is not an easy place to be in, but it’s a place that you can still come out of nonetheless with love and the right people around you.”

‘A very special human being’

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

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

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

Dustin, 32, says one  memory he has of Jadin is from February 2008, the day before the older sibling shipped out to the military. The Bell family had a Super Bowl party to watch the New York Giants play the New England Patriots, who were heavily favored to win. 

“My brother used to love teasing me,” Dustin said. “He’s very antagonistic, and because he was the younger child, he always got his way.”

During the fourth quarter, Jadin was playing with the remote, “and I kept telling him to ‘set down the remote, set down the remote,’ and he never did,” he recalled. 

Then, Jadin dropped the remote. The TV turned off, and the batteries fell out of the remote. 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 greatest upsets in sports history. 

Jadin looked shocked and quickly ran away, he added. 

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

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

Both Dustin and Miller said Jadin was never shy about being himself. In addition to being the only out 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 could 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 sports — football — or nothing,” and  he was smaller than most people his age. 

“It really resonated with me because, as someone who grew up in a small town who felt very misunderstood and … unheard by 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 spoke to his family and friends. He met Jadin’s mother while he was wearing her son’s clothing.

“Even though he was in this amount of pain and he felt so alone, he was so strong in what he believed in and who he was, and that had such an impact on everyone around him and to everyone that I’ve talked to,” Miller said. 

Dustin said he thought Miller did an incredible job capturing the essence of his brother in “Joe Bell.” He said the grieving process for his family is “continual,” and he hopes that the movie reaches an audience that might not usually think about these issues. 

“I just hope that it influences people to be more open minded and not judgmental and more accepting of people from different walks of life,” he said. 

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

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

‘I know that you’re with me on this walk’

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

The La Grande School District has not responded to a request for comment regarding that incident, but in response to the movie’s upcoming release, the district issued an in-depth statement about the resources it offers to students who are in crisis and LGBTQ students seeking support, such as counseling. 

“Our district’s commitment is to ensure we have a positive and inclusive school experience in which all students can thrive academically within an affirming school community,” part of the district’s statement read. “Furthermore, it is our responsibility as professionals to provide a safe and caring setting for every student.”

In addition, a La Grande senior started the school’s first club for LGBTQ students in the spring of 2013, just a few months after Jadin’s death. 

Jadin’s death was one of multiple suicides among LGBTQ young people that made national news around that time. On Sept. 19, 2010, Seth Walsh, a gay 13-year-old living in Southern California, died by suicide after being bullied. Three days later, Tyler Clementi, a gay student at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, killed himself after being recorded on a webcam kissing another man. Two more teens, 14-year-old Kenneth Weishuhn and 17-year old Josh Pacheco also died by suicide in 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 that you’re with me on this walk.” 

After Bell died, people took up his cause for him, sharing photos of themselves on Facebook on walks in his honor and to share his message.

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

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

Anthony Ramos, head of talent at GLAAD, an LGBTQ advocacy group, said the Bells’ story is an important one for people to see and understand. 

“Given that the film is lead by such a high-profile, big budget movie star and that it is now available to people in theatres, there is a real potential for many to have their eyes opened to the disproportionate amount of bullying and harassment that so many LGBTQ youth endure and to also witness a parent’s road to acceptance for their own child, and deep regret for not doing so sooner,” Ramos said in an emailed statement to NBC News.

Nearly 70 percent of students have reported experiencing verbal harassment at school based on their sexual orientation, and more than half said they experienced this type of harassment based on their gender expression (57 percent) or 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 postings on Facebook, also known as cyberbullying.

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

“Whether they’re said or whether they’re typed, words can be devastating, or they can be lifesaving,” he said. “People need to understand that words have weight and are really powerful and can profoundly damage someone beyond repair.”

A 2019 survey from the Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth suicide prevention nonprofit group, found that youth who have at least one accepting adult in their life were 40 percent less likely to report a suicide attempt in the past year.

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

“The fight is always still on and there will always be support, and hopefully one day we get to a place where we don’t have to fight that fight anymore, where everyone can feel free to be whoever, whatever they want,” he said.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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