By Kathryn G. Menu
It wasn’t pre-planned, but mere days after the apparent suicide of an East Hampton High School junior, and the emergence of an Internet firestorm of rumors surrounding his tragic death largely devoted to whether or not it was connected to bullying and sexuality, the first meeting of the Pierson Middle/High School Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) was held.
Pierson Middle/High School history teacher and high school GSA advisor Sean Kelly said both inside and outside the alliance, there has been an ongoing dialog among students about the death of David Hernandez Barros. However, Kelly added with so many questions still unanswered, as a group the GSA has chosen not to have this moment become one of judgment, but rather push the organization forward in its advocacy for tolerance between all students who attend Pierson Middle/High School.
On September 29, Barros, 16, reportedly took his own life in his East Hampton home. Police have yet to confirm the suicide, although in a story that appeared in the October 11 edition of The East Hampton Star by reporter T.E. Morrow, Barros’ mother confirms her son’s suicide. She alleges he was the victim of bullying at East Hampton High School because of his sexual orientation.
In response, East Hampton School Superintendent Richard Burns released a statement late last week, lamenting Barros death and the prevalent nature of bullying throughout society. Burns also noted the school district hosts numerous programs and workshops around the subject and has Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. In East Hampton, those clubs exist both in the high school and in the middle school.
On Monday at 6 p.m. the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth Network will host a town meeting at East Hampton High School to discuss the circumstances surrounding Barros death and how the community can come together to help youth before suicide is even a consideration.
In a press release, the organization said it also wants to encourage the creation of an LGBT community center in Suffolk County.
In Southampton Town, October has been declared Bullying Prevention Month, and Councilwoman Christine Scalera and the town’s youth bureau have organized a series of lectures around the issue.
Last night, “Blueprint for Addressing Bulling” was held at Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. The series will continue next week with “Cyber-bullying: The Inside Track for Kids and Parents” on Wednesday, October 24 at 7 p.m. at the Hampton Bays Community Center on Ponquogue Avenue. Lastly, “A Survivor’s Story” will be held on Tuesday, October 30 at 7 p.m. at the Flanders Community Center on Flanders Road.
On Wednesday, Kelly said he was convening the second meeting of the high school GSA that afternoon and planned to talk to the group about attending forums in other communities, in particular the discussion on Monday night in East Hampton.
As for the creation of the club, which was championed by some parents last year and only recently was approved on a conditional, six-month basis as an enrichment program, Kelly said he believes it is critical for the student body.
“I think it is important for the LGBT students to have a place they feel comfortable — a place that supports them and supports their needs,” said Kelly. “I think it is also important that the school has a place where everyone — LGBT or straight — can get together in a casual setting. This group is here for everyone.”
“Pierson is a pretty tolerant school, I believe, relatively speaking when it comes to LGBT issues,” said Kelly. “We have students who are comfortable, again relatively speaking, being openly gay in our school. There are also students who are gay but are not out and it is important the GSA exists for them as well — a space they can be comfortable in without having to announce their sexuality.”
Kelly said he wants the mission of the GSA to be student driven, but ultimately in addition to being a safe space for students to converge, he also wants it to be a group that can engage in advocacy and education — raising awareness about the impacts of bullying and the benefits of tolerance.
While having a school GSA is not mandated by the state, there are laws in place to protect students in school from bullying — no matter their sexual orientation or personal situation.
In July, New York State’s Dignity for All Students Act took effect and requires all school to report incidents of bullying and discrimination.
Formal reports will be filed with the state at the end of 2013.
According to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among four to 14 year olds and the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds. According to a Yale University study, victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.
It is for this very reason that school districts across the country have begun implementing programming to deal with bullying.
At the Bridgehampton School, principal Jack Pryor said the district has focused on bullying prevention for years, especially as technology has developed. Through concepts like instant messaging and social networks, bullying can often follow kids home from school. Like Pierson Middle/High School, Bridgehampton School regularly has group discussions with speakers like members of the Suffolk County Police Department about the impacts of bullying, both socially and legally.
Bridgehampton School has also adopted PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports), a process that creates a social culture that encourages positive behavior in school and in the community at large.
“You have to practice these things every year, but also all year,” said Pryor. “It never ends for us.”
Pierson Middle/High School vice principal Barbara Bekermus agreed.
Bekermus said they begin early in the middle school breaking students into smaller groups for conversations related to anti-bullying and tolerance. The days of the annual assembly about bullying, are over, she said.
In fact, the school is sending 30 student leaders to the Middle School Tolerance and Anti-Bullying Conference, hosted by the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County, on Wednesday, October 26 in Commack.
“We also ask teachers to fit these conversations into their curriculum,” said Bekermus. “It is explored in literature, history.”
“I think with the Dignity Act, a positive thing is people are talking about this much more,” she said. “Sometimes we have to hold people accountable. We have to let our students know that if you report something, we will do something about it.”
“A lot of times, people think we won’t, but I promise we will,” she added. “And if we don’t let it go even just one time, maybe we can start to turn things around.”