Sunday marks one year since East Hampton High School junior David Hernandez Barros took his own life. His death rocked the school community with grief and revealed to administrators that more needed to be done to address bullying and mental health issues.
Carmita Barros, David’s mother, has said 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 four years ago.
To prevent such a tragedy from happening again, the high school is holding an Evening of Healing and Dialogue, with the New York State and Suffolk County offices of mental health, tonight, Wednesday, September 25, at 6:30 p.m. at the school’s auditorium.
The meeting will address community reactions and grief needs of students after suicide, as well as delineate how to identify common warning signs and what parents, friends and community members can to do to help prevent a suicide.
“Our eyes are open and we’re taking advantage of everything we can find to help to settle children and their parents in and help reach out to the community,” said School Board President Patricia Hope. “We’re communicating in areas where we never thought of communicating in before.”
The discussion will begin with opening remarks by High School Principal Adam Fine and will slide into a presentation by Brooke Yonick of the Suffolk County Office of Mental Health and Melanie Puorto-Conte, the director of the state’s suicide prevention initiative.
The two will dispel common myths and share facts about suicide, like how bullying alone can spur on suicide.
According to Ms. Puorto-Conte, most recent studies have shown that bullying is just a tipping point for somebody who is already at risk.
“Someone is already at risk because they’re depressed or have other concerns,” she said. “Bullying can’t be generalized to say that it causes people to take their own lives.”
Mr. Puorto-Conte will also go over common warning signs, and give tips about how to talk to children. Ms. Yonick will also introduce different agencies that offer a variety of mental health services. A Q&A session will follow.
Mr. Fine said offering such a program is the right thing to do, even though it will reopen last year’s wounds.
“As a principal, you’re always apprehensive about bringing this type of program and continuing the dialogue—bringing more attention to something we shouldn’t bring attention to,” he said. “But we double-checked and this is exactly what we should be doing. This is another part of the process, but it’s not going to put closure on it.”
The night of healing is just another program the school has offered in the wake of David’s death.
In the summer of 2012, New York State’s Dignity for All Act went into effect in public schools. It seeks to prevent bullying and discrimination by requiring schools to track and report instances of bullying to the state, update codes of conduct and character education programs to tackle a broader range of discrimination, and to train employees from administrators to teachers to drivers in preventing bullying at school functions and on school buses.
The Board of Cooperative Educational Services has been helping regional school districts train staff for about two years.
Last November, the high school sent a team to Out of the Darkness, a community walk organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at Old Westbury Gardens.
In addition, the district has made efforts to reach out to the Spanish-speaking families through multiple meetings organized and headed by Ana Nunez, an East Hampton High School graduate and new liaison to the Spanish-speaking community for the school district.
According to Ms. Hope, Ms. Nunez made 300 phone calls in her first days with the district and held four meetings last year for Latin American families to orient them with the school and the programs the district offers.
Ms. Hope said understanding and connecting with Latin American families is key.
“If a child is being bullied right next to you in a language you don’t even understand, where’s the culpability? Teachers have not been required to speak Spanish and the child was being bullied in Spanish. It’s so ludicrously simple.”
More support exists within the Gay Straight Alliance, which offers character education, anti-bias programs, cyberbullying awareness for students and parents, suicide prevention workshops, and numerous other efforts.
In August, the very first gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community center in the Hamptons opened at the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor, and it was dedicated to David’s memory.
Senior Joel Johnson, president of East Hampton High School’s Gay Straight Alliance and a member of the GLBT Center’s Youth Committee, said when he came out both as gay and transgender last year, even though everyone was really supportive, it was clear that the high school could not offer enough support.
To get a true sense of how the school community is doing in the wake of David’s death, parents, students and staff recently took a 70-question survey that analyzed their feelings about safety, relationships, learning and communication at the high school. On a scale of 1 to 5, participants were asked to agree or disagree with such statements as “My school tries to get all families to be part of school activities.” All three groups of respondents—students, parents and staff—gave their lowest grade to what was called the “dimension” of social-emotional security.
According to Ms. Hope, the school district is making strides toward better communication, understanding and support—which could have helped prevent David from taking his life.
“The kind of mental and emotional trouble that faces children became evident with David,” she said. “We were not at fault except that we were ignorant. As a school, ignorance is what we try to battle. Between Joel and Ana—listen to the children, they will tell you what to do.”