High School Ignored Bullying, Mother Claims

Two Latino suicides in three years
Friends and family of David Hernandez met in East Hampton last Thursday to draw attention to the East Hampton High School junior’s Sept. 29 suicide. His mother, Carmita Barros, was second from left, holding his photograph. T.E. McMorrow

    David H. Hernandez, the East Hampton High School student who took his own life on Sept. 29, had been the subject of repeated and sustained bullying at the school because of his sexual orientation, according to his mother, Carmita Barros, who claims the school administration ignored what was happening because David was an immigrant Latino.
    The 16-year-old, a junior at the school, is the second Latino student at the high school to have committed suicide in less than three years. Colombian-born Tatiana Giraldo-Fahardo, a senior, died at home in Montauk in December 2009.
    Her son had been despondent since the beginning of the school year, Ms. Barros said. He left a note for her, asking her for forgiveness and hoping that God would understand his actions. The note, written in Spanish, asked his mother to bury him in Ecuador.  Click for Obituary
   Last Thursday, Ms. Barros and a group of 18 parents and teenagers gathered at the bereaved family’s house to speak out against bullying and what they see as an indifferent school administration. Several calls to the school principal, Adam S. Fine, and the district ssuperintendent, Richard Burns, requesting comment on the allegations were not returned.
    Candles were lit about the room, as well as in a shrine to Nuestra de la Nube, Our Lady of the Clouds, an Ecuadorean tradition honoring the Virgin Mary.
    “[Ms. Barros] is just looking for justice,” said Blanca Stella Buitrago, who acted as spokeswoman for the group.
    Ms. Barros came to America from Ecuador 13 years ago to work, sending money back every two weeks or so to support her children. Eventually she sent for them, first for her daughter, Gabriella, and then, a little over three years ago, for David, whom she hadn’t seen for eight years.
    She realized as soon as he arrived that he was gay, she said at the gathering, and tried to create a home environment where he could feel accepted. He came at the end of the school year, and was placed in a class with Gabriella to help him adjust.
    Ms. Hernandez, who is now 18, said she had experienced first-hand the brutality of bullying when she arrived at East Hampton High. She said the persecution, mostly by fellow Latinos — including Ecuadoreans who have been in the country longer — could have been for a variety of reasons: height (she is small of stature), the inability to speak any English, and ignorance about what to wear.
    David enjoyed going to school those few days with his sister, and looked forward to his freshman year. It was short-lived, however. No longer in class with Gabriella, he began to be teased.
    “One day he came home crying,” Ms. Barros said. “He was crying and crying. He told me, Mom, I don’t want to go back to school.” He did, though.
    He particularly dreaded riding in the school bus. Ms. Barros began driving him to school every day from their house in Springs, except for Fridays, when her work schedule prevented it. “When I’d drop him off, he’d put his head down,” she said.
    She could see how unhappy he was when he’d return from school, especially on Fridays, and would ask what was troubling him. “ ‘It’s all right, Mom, it’s okay,’ he told me.”
    Though David had been athletic in Ecuador, he dreaded gym class at the school, said Ms. Barros.
    After making it through his freshman and sophomore years, she said, his mental state seemed to deteriorate when the current school year began. He was seeing a psychiatrist on Mondays and a psychologist on Fridays.
    “Two weeks ago, they stole his cellphone,” Ms. Barros said. She went to the school to complain.
    Next, she said, “a group of Spanish kids threw his sandwich on the floor” in the lunchroom. “I told the school what happened. They said they were going to talk to them.” She questions what actions the school actually took.
    In a series of entries in Spanish on his Facebook page, which the family shared for publication, David expressed himself.
    On Sept. 14, he wrote, “I feel so bad. Every day of my life, somebody’s laughing at me.”
    The next day, he wrote, “This is so crazy. There are some moments there’s no point to live, when you feel you don’t have control . . . There are moments that I think that God has forgotten about me.”
    On Sept. 26, the family attended a church service for Nuestra de la Nube. Afterward, said Ruth Barros, David’s aunt, who lives with the family, the boy began asking questions about God and religion.
    The next day, he attended a meeting at the high school of the Gay-Straight Alliance, which is dedicated to fostering the acceptance of all sexual persuasions among the student body.
    “He seemed like a nice guy,” said Joel Johnson, 16, the organization’s president, who spoke about the meeting shortly after David’s death. “He didn’t get a lot of talking in,” as the meeting dealt with administrative matters.
    The day before he died, David experienced a particularly bad moment at school. Ms. Barros learned about it afterward from the teacher. “David sat down,” Ms. Barros said she was told, crossing his legs as he did so and putting his elbows on his desk. Some in the class began laughing at him, taunting him about his posture. According to Ms. Barros, the whole class began to laugh. The teacher scolded them.
    That night, Ms. Barros said, he was the lowest she’d ever seen, but in the morning, when she made breakfast, he seemed happy. Afterward, however, he began pacing, then went into his bedroom.
    At 1 p.m., she went into his room to say goodbye as she left for work. He was asleep. It was the last time she saw him alive.
    “What we are upset about is that the school did nothing,” Ms. Buitrago said. She said the bullying of Latino children was not isolated to gay students, and turned to the people crowded into Ms. Barros’s small living room for proof.
    “How many of you have had your children bullied? Raise your hands.”
    Every hand in the room went up.
    Sandra Torres has a son in the school who, she said, has been pushed around. “They took his backpack,” she said. When the backpack was found, the books were still in it but everything else was gone, including his dental retainer. She went to the school to complain, but said she felt as if she was ignored.
    “If this happened to a white kid, things would be different,” Ms. Buitrago said.
    According to Ms. Torres, one impetus behind bullying may be the school’s policy toward children who speak no English, which she said was to divide them from the general student body to allow them to better acclimate. “It makes them feel bad,” she said, and makes them an inviting target.
    She said there was little contact between the school administration and the Spanish-speaking community. “Most schools have a PTA,” she said. If there is one at East Hampton High School, she said she had never been invited to join it.
    “We all have kids here, and we don’t want this to happen again,” said Ms. Buitrago. “When they are in school, we feel they should be protected. We don’t feel protected by the town. We are afraid for our children.”
    “What is justice?” asked Ms. Barros. “Justice means the government will make laws. If you know a kid is bullying, suspend him.”
    “There are a lot of new people coming in,” Ms. Buitrago said. “They should not be discriminated against because of their look or their race. Because they don’t speak English. And because of their sexual orientation.” In Ms. Barros’s living room that day, there was full agreement.
    On Tuesday, after learning of David’s death, the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth Network said it would “fast-track” its efforts to open an L.G.B.T. community center in Suffolk County. The organization plans to hold a meeting at the high school at 6 p.m. on Oct. 22 to discuss what may have happened at the school and how to put an end to it.
    Meanwhile, in Southampton Town, this month has been named Bullying Prevention Month, following a finding by the town’s youth bureau that 21 percent of teenagers who responded to a survey reported having been bullied during the 2011-2012 school year. The town will hold several meetings during the month focusing on bullying and cyber-bullying, for example on Facebook. The first event will take place on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Rogers Memorial Library.
    In July, New York State’s new Dignity for All Students Act took effect. It requires schools to report incidents of bullying and discrimination, and to write the act into the school’s code of conduct. According to Bridget LeRoy, East Hampton High School’s communications coordinator, the school has adopted the act and posted it on its Web site.