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Oct 16, 2012 3:27 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

A Ripple Of Soul-Searching In Wake Of Student's Death

Oct 16, 2012 6:05 PM

East Hampton School District officials remain virtually silent about the September 29 suicide of a high school junior whose family and friends say he was bullied because he was gay.

District officials have declined requests to discuss the death of 16-year-old David Hernandez and instead issued a statement on Friday through Syntax, a public relations firm from Bohemia, that was attributed to Superintendent Richard Burns.

“Our school district maintains a progressive, affirming culture of respect and acceptance through student-centered programs and services for families,” the superintendent’s statement said in part. “These include everything from our Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to character education, anti-bias programs, cyberbullying awareness for students and parents, suicide prevention workshops, and numerous other efforts.”

“We consider our district to be in the vanguard with regard to these efforts,” said the statement, which did not address specific claims made by the boy’s mother and other people in an article published in last week’s East Hampton Star. Neither Mr. Burns nor the high school principal, Adam Fine, would agree to discuss the matter.

Carmita Barros, David’s mother, told The Star that her son was bullied because he was gay and that school officials ignored his predicament because he was Latino. David arrived in this country from Ecuador about three years ago after his mother and then his older sister had gained a foothold.

Neither Ms. Barros nor several people who criticized the school district at a private meeting at the family’s East Hampton home on October 4 responded to requests for comment.

David had attended a meeting of East Hampton High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance a few days before his death at home in East Hampton. Last Thursday, the alliance celebrated National Coming Out Day at the high school at a meeting also attended by administrators, faculty, staff and School Board members. The author Steven Gaines said he’d been invited after David died to speak about his own experience growing up gay “in an ultra-Orthodox community” in Bensonhurst during a time when few people spoke at all about homosexuality and tried to “cure” it. “I was tortured by adults as well as kids,” Mr. Gaines said. “I had stopped going to school because I was so unhappy.”

He said that kids need to know that, today, “there are so many remedies, so many places to reach out to” when feeling isolated. “We’re living in a different world,” he said, with “people constantly coming out” on television and elsewhere, although harassment of homosexuals by all means does continue. “You can do anything,” said the bestselling author, who ran for East Hampton Town Board last year as an openly gay man.

Mr. Gaines called the superintendent’s statement, which was released the day after his talk, “mealymouthed and equivocating.” He suggested that the school and others in East Hampton Town mount a “huge” campaign against bullying hand in hand with the Latino community. Meanwhile, Mr. Gaines spoke of the value of the Trevor Project, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “questioning” young people. The project’s name comes from an Academy Award-winning film about a boy who feels suicidal after being mocked for having a crush on the most popular boy in school. He makes it through—as do the vast majority of teenagers as well as adults—the Trevor Project emphasizes on its website (www.thetrevorproject.org; hotline: 866-488-7386).

So does the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ((afsp.org; the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK [8255]). “Everything that we know about suicide is that it doesn’t fundamentally result from adverse life events or circumstances alone,” said Ann Haas, senior director of education and prevention for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, who said that drawing conclusions about causative factors can be dangerous because each person’s situation is unique. There are about 12 suicides for every 100,000 people, she said, with a much stronger link to depression and other often treatable mental illnesses than to painful life experiences like bullying or, for adults, unemployment, divorce or the death of a loved one.

“Many, many people share these experiences, but suicide is rare as a response—mercifully, otherwise the rate would be huge,” she said. “We want to have another narrative there.”

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