David H. Hernandez, the 16-year old East Hampton High School student who took his own life on Sept. 29, had attempted suicide twice before, with one attempt coming just 24 hours earlier, according to his mother, Carmita Barros, who met with the school’s principal, Adam S. Fine, on Monday.
Ms. Barros, accompanied by a friend, Blanca Stella Buitrago, presented Mr. Fine with 115 signatures from Latino parents demanding protection for their children and action against those responsible for bullying the boy, which, they said, led to his death. According to Ms. Barros, the school ignored what was happening because David was Latino.
The women presented Mr. Fine with a letter in both English and Spanish that had been written for Ms. Barros by a Latino employee of the school, who did not want her name revealed, fearing for her job. Another Latino employee interviewed for this article echoed that fear, saying that she would be fired if she were identified.
The letter singles out six Latino students as the transgressors, and also questions the actions of a bilingual school counselor. While other students looked on, it says, “David was often pushed on purpose, made inappropriate remarks to and verbally harassed.”
Ms. Barros also demanded copies of all documents and notes regarding her son. Under the state’s recently passed Dignity for all Students Act, “Schools will be responsible for collecting and reporting data regarding material incidents of discrimination and harassment.”
On Tuesday, Ms. Barros returned to the school, this time with her sister, to pick up the records. A receptionist handed her an envelope. There was nothing in it about bullying, she told The Star.
“I asked them, ‘Why don’t you have any records of my son’s bullying?’ They said, ‘That’s all we have,’ ” she said yesterday.
She asked the receptionist why there was no record of two conversations she had had in September with the bilingual counselor about David. Both conversations, Ms. Barros said yesterday, were extensive. The receptionist did not know the answer, and the counselor was not available to answer the question.
The East Hampton Town Police Department, which is looking into David’s death, has a copy of the letter presented Monday to the school, as well as a letter from Dr. Eric J. Bartky, the boy’s psychiatrist, whom he saw once a week. Dr. Bartky began seeing the teenager in May, shortly after his first suicide attempt. He wrote that “David described to me that he was being bullied in school on a regular basis by some male students who were making fun of his sexuality.”
The boy’s mother said he had been hospitalized for psychiatric treatment after the May attempt and that the school was aware of it.
The doctor’s letter continues, “David suffered with this again upon his return to school in September and he became progressively more depressed. David was an intelligent, quiet, very hurt, and confused adolescent who desperately wanted to be accepted by his peers. [He] was not able to find this in East Hampton.”
It is not clear how much communication Dr. Bartky had with the school. A call to his office on Tuesday was not returned by press time.
Ms. Barros also questioned the actions of the school administration, both immediately before and after the death of her son. On the day before he died, she said, she received a call from the bilingual counselor telling her that David was wearing a scarf in school, beneath which were visible red marks on his throat.
“She said to talk to David, why he has these marks on his neck.”
She confronted him that night. “I looked at the marks on his neck,” she said, as Ms. Buitrago translated. “I asked him what happened. He said, ‘Nothing, Mom, nothing.’ ”
“David,” she said, “You want to be an airplane pilot. Don’t do this to yourself.” At that moment, she said, she decided she would take him out of the school. Twenty-four hours later, he was dead.
At 9:33 a.m. on Oct. 1, District Superintendent Richard Burns attempted to call Ms. Barros. He left a voicemail message. “Hi, Senora Barros, Rich Burns calling from the East Hampton School district, I’m the superintendent here, I’m reaching out to you to express my extreme sorrow over this particular case. Our hearts go out to his family. If you’d give me a call, I’d appreciate it. I’d like to know if there is any way we could help.”
He then put the bilingual counselor on to leave the same message in Spanish.
Unfortunately, Mr. Burns had dialed a wrong number. His message of condolence was, in fact, left on the voicemail of Alberto Aguero, a cab driver in East Hampton. Mr. Aguero had never met Ms. Barros, but word of her son’s death had spread through the Latino community that weekend and he understood the importance of the message. He took it upon himself to search out Ms. Barros and delivered the message to her in person later that day.
Until yesteray, the school administration did not address the central allegation made by Ms. Barros and other Latinos: that the system ignores bullying amongst Latino students, usually recent immigrants who speak little or no English and are unfamiliar with the culture. Yesterday, Mr. Burns released a statement:
“The school community is deeply upset by the tragedy of David’s death, and our hearts and prayers are with his family and friends.”
“It is without question that the issue of bullying behaviors is a very real one in our society. Our school district maintains a progressive, affirming culture of respect and acceptance through student-centered programs and services for families. These include everything from our Gay-Straight Alliance clubs to character education, anti-bias programs, cyber-bullying awareness for student and parents, suicide prevention workshops, and numerous other efforts. We consider our district to be in the vanguard with regard to these efforts, and will continue our commitment to this part of the instructional program.”
“But it’s not just about programs and awareness. The caring professionals of our small school district are responsive to the needs of every student who walks through our doors. Numerous positive interventions are exercised on behalf of individual students on a daily basis. To the best of its abilities, the district attempts to meet the needs of all students in a direct and personal manner.”
Ms. Buitrago said Monday’s meeting with Mr. Fine could be an important first step for Latino parents. She said Mr. Fine had told her that “every student is my responsibility.”
Ms. Barros has applied for a temporary visa to bring her son’s body back to Ecuador for burial, as he requested in a farewell note. On the Tuesday after his death the school held a bake sale, which brought in over $4,000, enough to pay for his funeral service.
“We as a community failed this kid,” George Aman, the head of East Hampton’s board of education said yesterday. Mr. Aman indicated that the teen-ager’s suicide raises complex questions for the entire community. “We have to do a better job.”