In wake of student suicide, community says help is out there

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, at center, addressed the tragedy at an afternoon press conference with, at left, First Selectman Peter Tesei and, at right, Selectman David Theis and Chief of Police James Heavey. — Ken Borsuk photo

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie, at center, addressed the tragedy at an afternoon press conference with, at left, First Selectman Peter Tesei and, at right, Selectman David Theis and Chief of Police James Heavey. — Ken Borsuk photo

The suicide of 15-year-old Greenwich High School student Bartlomiej (Bart) Palosz just one day into the school year shook the town last week.

And in the wake of this tragedy, a number of residents and organizations have stepped up to remind the community that help is always available to those in distress.

According to police, Bart, a sophmore at Greenwich High School, died on the evening of Aug. 27, the first day of the new school year, from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Preliminary investigation of the incident revealed that the gun was family owned and had been stored within a gun locker inside the family’s home, but the case is still under investigation by members of the Greenwich Police Department’s Detective Division.

Reports from Bart’s family and classmates, along with disturbing posts made by the teen on his Google Plus page, have indicated that a constant stream of bullying that began as early as elementary school weighed heavily on his decision to take his own life. In his posts, Bart mentions problems at school and alludes to suicide multiple times, including a comment about what song to play at his funeral made on Aug. 16, less than two weeks before his suicide.

Greenwich Public Schools’ (GPS) district policy regarding bullying defines the behavior as “any overt acts by a student or group of students directed against another student with the intent to ridicule, harass, humiliate, or intimidate the other student while on school grounds, on a school bus, or at a school-sponsored activity, which acts are committed more than once against any student during the school year.”

The policy goes on to explain that “bullying behavior can take many forms and can vary dramatically in how serious it is, and what impact it has on the victim and other students. Accordingly, there is no one prescribed response to verified acts of bullying.”

‘We knew Bart’

Superintendent of Schools William McKersie addressed Bart’s circumstances at the Aug. 29 Board of Education meeting. Although he did not get into the specifics of what kind of counseling or intervention there had been for the teen or if there had been any report of bullying incidents against him, he did state that “we knew Bart” at the school and district level.

“We were trying like crazy from the elementary years to make the connections,” Dr. McKersie said. “This is a district that cares about each of its 9,000 students.”

Dr. McKersie said he never wanted another child to make the kind of decision Bart made to take his own life.

“We are going through this in great seriousness,” Dr. McKersie said. “I did not know Bart. I recognized the photos of him, but I can already tell you a lot about him. In this big district, I already had lots of information about him when I asked for it. We are searching through all of these issues and what’s front and center in my mind is a Google page that despite all our intention kids saw but adults didn’t see. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We’re going to look at that,” he said.

Though school officials will not comment further on the case, GPS Director of Communications Kim Eves confirmed that the school continues to investigate Bart’s experiences in the Greenwich Public Schools and said a support and anti-bullying group that will likely be called “GHS Connections” is being discussed by students.

GHS Connections, however, is not the only local group that arose in the wake of Bart’s suicide.

Just two days after his death, a Facebook page called “Greenwich Compliments” emerged on the popular social media site. The page is an attempt to fight bullying and boost others’ self-esteem through anonymous posts in which a person pays a compliment to someone else, who then sees the comment pop up on the page.

Although the individual who created the page is unknown, the person indicates that he is a male resident who attended Greenwich High School.

In an initial post by Greenwich Compliments, the user asked others to “make sure to send me the compliments you want me to post! If someone made you smile yesterday you should make somebody smile today!” The page has since caught on like wildfire, raking in nearly 1,000 “friends” of all ages just one week after its online debut, with plenty of praise pouring out for the site’s creator.

Support in community

Existing support service groups have also reminded the community that help is available to those who are struggling, including Kids in Crisis, the town-based organization that aims to help children, teens and parents manage all types of crises.

According to Kids in Crisis Managing Director Denise Qualey, the organization addresses anything and everything that upsets a young community member, operating under the idea that any distressing circumstance can be considered a crisis. With a 24-hour hotline available to the community, the Kids in Crisis staff “never takes a holiday,” Ms. Qualey said. Someone is always available to talk to parents or friends of a loved one in distress, or the individuals themselves.

What makes Kids in Crisis’ services unique, she added, is that a staff member is always available, day or night, to meet with someone who feels they need face-to-face support whether it be at a diner, counseling agency, school or any other safe location.

One of the most important lessons that the parents of struggling youth can teach their children is that there are adults who can be trusted outside the immediate family, Ms. Qualey said. It’s important that adults let kids know that there are safe resources besides parents that a child can turn to in a time of need, whether it is a coach, an aunt, the leader of a community organization, a yoga instructor or anyone else they deem trustworthy, she added.

“There are a lot of helping adults around and we need to make sure kids are aware of who they are,” Ms. Qualey said, adding that these external resources are “a true asset” to local youth.

The staff at Kids in Crisis are constantly assessing for safety in those they counsel, often looking for signs of suicide that may surface as the result of a crisis, Ms. Qualey said. Nevertheless, she added, it’s important to remember that teens, such as Bart, who take their own lives do not always choose to do so as the result of one specific struggle.

“I don’t think there’s ever one thing that can often make a kid feel completely at a loss; it’s usually a combination of factors,” Ms. Qualey said. “It’s a very complicated thing when someone is in the depth of despair.”

Warning signs

If friends or family members of a troubled person fear that that individual is contemplating suicide or harming themselves in some way, however, it’s vital that they monitor that person closely for signs and symptoms of distress, Ms. Qualey said.

Indicators may include disruptions in sleep, change of social circles, lack of interest in activities the individual once enjoyed, risky behavior such as reckless driving or substance abuse and, of course, any direct expression of suicidal thoughts, she said.

While family and friends should be taking a deeper look at those who display signs of distress, they must couple that observation with the communication of their concerns, Ms. Qualey said. One of the most important ways to prevent others from harming themselves is to speak up when something is not right, she said. New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) long-used slogan “if you see something, say something” applies directly to those who observe signs of crisis in others, she added.

“You can’t be silent if something is wrong,” Ms. Qualey said, adding that peers, especially, need to come forward if they are worried about a fellow classmate or friend. “There are more stable, good, healthy kids out there than not so we need to empower those kids to not be silent,” she said.

Jenny Byxbee, youth services coordinator for the Greenwich United Way, had similar sentiments, urging the community to let those who are troubled know that there are resources available to help them.

In 2011, she said, the Greenwich United Way, in partnership with the Greenwich High School leadership class, published a suicide prevention guide called “Friends Can Help Friends: Is Someone You Know at Risk?” It provided a suicide risk checklist as well as risk factors to look for and resources one can connect with for help. The guide, Ms. Byxbee said, is still a highly valuable resource and a copy may be found at unitedway-greenwich.com/library/suicide-prevention.

In addition, she said, more information on suicide prevention may be found at suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a network of crisis centers committed to suicide prevention that are located in communities across the country.

According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, there are more than 34,000 suicides in the United States annually. Studies show the best way to prevent suicide is through early recognition and treatment of depression and other psychiatric illnesses. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate help, seek it as soon as possible by calling the Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or the United Way Info Line at 211, which is toll-free any time from anywhere in Connecticut.

For parents of elementary and middle school children interested in how to recognize and help prevent bullying, the Jewish Community Center of Greenwich will partner with the Anti-Defamation League to present an interactive bullying awareness workshop, “What Kids Wish Their Parents Knew,” on Tuesday, Oct. 1, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Town Hall. Organizers of the event seek to remind the community that name-calling and cyber-bullying are frequently associated with tragic consequences, attested to by the fact that suicide is the third leading cause of death among Connecticut residents ages 15 to 19.

The Kids in Crisis Helpline may be reached at 203-327-KIDS (5437). Other resources include the National Hopeline at 800-SUICIDE (784-2433) and the Department of Children and Families Careline at 800-842-2288.

 

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