It turns out he's run away to avoid the brutality and humiliation of being constantly bullied. Instead of retaliating, he eventually attempts suicide.
At the end of the episode, "Without A Trace" put up the number for the suicide prevention hotline. In just three minutes, the line received 400 calls.
Hank Steinberg, one of the series' executive producers and the series' creator says, "I am very surprised at the outpouring." Bullying is a change from the usual "missing person" theme of the drama.
"Obviously, we, as the writers, were also aware that it's a big problem in schools," says Steinberg, who wrote the script. "We did research on it. The biggest thing that struck us is that the kids don't talk about it. They don't talk about it with parents. They don't talk about it."
Only three out of 14 students in a San Bernadino class raised their hands when asked if they tell their parents what's going on at school.
In an effort to get the kids to open up about bullying, this California middle school played the episode in class. The seventh and eighth graders say they related to Erik's isolation.
Anabel Sanches, 14, says, "If he tells, then the same thing is going to happen again and again, and he's not going to tell nobody."
Jesse Gonzalez, 13, notes, "Everyone beat him up and stuff. And the friends didn't do anything - like tell someone that that was happening."
Nearly 1,000 schools across the country have requested copies of the show. The kids who see it think even bullies may change after watching it.
Felicia Bird, 12, says, "Hopefully, they'll understand about other's feelings not theirs, like: 'Oh you're crying. Hha, ha. I feel big and better.' Not like: 'Oh he's crying, we should help him.' Not like: 'Oh, we're just going to push him aside and walk away.'"
Asked if it makes him think about what he did a long time ago to other people, the student says, " I started crying at the end and I don't cry."
Students are moved to tears when the character Erik tries to kill himself, only to be rescued at the last minute.
Derek Graffious, 14, says, "After all the times he's been picked on and stuff, he thought killing himself was going to be a way to get out of it all."
Guidance counselor John Nettinga tells the students, "We're never going to get rid of every single bully in the world. But at least if someone is being hurt, or someone is being bothered, or someone is in danger of hurting themselves, we need to know about it."
Educators hope the broadcast helps other kids before they become as desperate as Erik. For these students, the TV show just may be their most important lesson in social studies.
CBS is giving out complementary copies of the show to school districts.
If you think it's a good idea to have this episode shown at your child's school, forward the information to the school's principal. To obtain a release form, educators should e-mail email@example.com.
Tapes will be available for a period of one month. Requests must be received by April 5.