Bullying expert, teen tell town how to help in aftermath of student suicide

Ross Ellis, the founder and CEO of the STOMP Out Bullying, addresssed the Board of Selectmen last week to talk about the best response the town can make to the suicide of 15-year-old high school student Bart Palosz. — Ken Borsuk photo

Ross Ellis, the founder and CEO of the STOMP Out Bullying, addresssed the Board of Selectmen last week to talk about the best response the town can make to the suicide of 15-year-old high school student Bart Palosz.
— Ken Borsuk photo

The suicide last month of 15-year-old Greenwich High School sophomore Bart Palosz has spurred increased focus on the issue of bullying in school, and last week that discussion was brought right to the Board of Selectmen.

While the details of why Bart committed suicide after the first day of school remain unknown, according to his sister and classmates he had been the victim of relentless bullying at both GHS and Western Middle School. A police investigation as well as one looking into the allegations of bullying led by Town Attorney Wayne Fox are ongoing, and last week, at the invitation of Selectman Drew Marzullo, Ross Ellis, the founder and CEO of the STOMP Out Bullying organization, addressed the board.

“It breaks my heart to see the way youth are treating everybody in the everyday things that they do,” Ms. Ellis said. “For the past eight years we’ve seen so many kids hurt each other, just because they thought it was funny or a cool thing to do. This is not a problem isolated to Greenwich. We see it all over the country.”

The mission of STOMP Out Bullying, which strives to assist kids and teens, is to focus on reducing and preventing bullying, cyberbullying and other forms of digital abuse while also providing education to stop violence, racism and homophobia in schools, a particularly important issue since, reportedly, nine out of 10 gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students experience.

“Bullying and cyberbullying are such serious issues for kids,” Ms. Ellis said. “Kids bully because they learn this behavior at home, have low self-esteem, have been bullied themselves, want to be popular or just because. They don’t need a reason. Unfortunately many adults think it’s a rite of passage and it isn’t. Today bullying has escalated in ways we never even dreamed of.”

While many details about Bart’s experiences in the Greenwich Public Schools have not been officially released, Ms. Ellis discussed reports of him being constantly bullied with many knowing what was happening. She cited his Google + page, which has been a cause of much speculation that he had been planning his suicide for some time. Ms. Ellis said decisions like these are made without thinking of the consequences, such as the impact on family and friends and that they don’t under stand that “suicide is forever.”

“If only someone had paid attention to Bart’s pain,” Ms. Ellis said. “No kid should ever, ever be planning their death. So many suicides come from contagion behavior [where social influences play a part in actions] and kids don’t have the emotional capacity to handle the pain of bullying. They’re usually other things involved, but bullying exacerbates whatever else might be going on.”

She added, “As painful as bullying is, it’s not forever. Suicide is. They have no sense of tomorrow, only today.”

In order to prevent future tragedies, Ms. Ellis recommended education to make sure people know the forms and signs of bullying as well as the signs of suicide. But, she stressed, this was not just to help identify kids being bullied, but to find the bullies as well. Ms. Ellis said bullying can be found in many forms, including verbal, emotional, racial, homophobic, sexual bullying and digital harassment, and it’s not just as simple as expelling bullies since the goal should be to change their behavior through work with parents.

While she granted there are no easy solutions, that’s no excuse for not doing anything because there are solutions out there.

“There are creative ways to handle some forms of this bullying and we can delete the digital drama by just clicking the word delete,” Ms. Ellis said. “But when the pain becomes so unbearable towards a student, they need help and they’re afraid to tell an adult… They fear they’re either not going to get help or that the adults will make the situation worse for them. For the many kids who have gone to adults, nothing has been done.”

While school districts, including Greenwich have “zero tolerance” bullying statutes, Ms. Ellis said they are rarely enforced, which leaves victims feeling helpless. She said that through increased education to teach students about being kind and respectful at home, at school and in the community, there can be progress and Ms. Ellis advocated for more social, emotional learning (SEL) in the curriculum to help kids develop life skills to learn about dealing with themselves and others, which she said can lead to better development of sympathy and empathy.

When it comes to online bullying, Ms. Ellis said schools need to get involved, no matter if the activity is happening off-campus, and said parents had to become more computer literate to know what their children are doing online. Additionally, Ms. Ellis urged students to “stand up” and not be bystanders to help victims of bullying and said families who see troubling signs in their children can’t just let it happen.

“Families must learn the signs of childhood bullying and, if their child is a bully, get them help,” Ms. Ellis said. “Don’t just toss it to the side because ‘My child has a behavior problem.’ Get them help. If a child is a victim of bullying, parents must listen, love them, tell them it’s not their fault and help them.”

Ms. Ellis did not attend this meeting by herself. She brought with her 15-year-old Alex Levy, who attends St. Luke’s School in New Canaan. A victim of severe bullying at a previous school, he is now one of the organization’s teen ambassadors. He cited the writer Zack W. Van as saying, “Bullying builds character like nuclear waste creates superheroes. It’s a rare occurrence and often does much more damage than endowment.”

“I, along with my fellow teen ambassadors, consider ourselves superheroes in context,” Alex said. “We overcame the bullying. We overcame the harassment. We overcame our tormentors and I stand strong in front of you here today all thanks to Ross Ellis and the amazing work she and others do. But not everyone is as strong or as lucky. To survive bullying takes internal strength and external support. It takes parental involvement. It takes school engagement. It takes courage on the part of those who see what is happening to be intolerant of the bully. When all of these things don’t come together, sadly, we have a tragedy like the loss of an innocent 15-year-old who had his whole life ahead of him but who chose to stop the pain in the only way he saw available.”

Alex insisted that “suicide is never the answer” but said he identified with the feelings of despair, isolation, loneliness and pain that he imagined Bart must have felt.

“He must have felt that the only way to stop the abuse would be to disappear and the only way to disappear was to end his life,” Alex said. “He made, I’m sure, the only decision he felt he could. But now it is our responsibility to make sure he is not forgotten and that we do everything in our power to make changes in the community and around the world so tragedies like this stop.”

Saying that “Bullying should never be thought of as an issue someone else will deal with later on,” Alex called for more proactive responses from school officials and for students who witness bullying to do something about it.

First Selectman Peter Tesei thanked Alex for his courage and called him a “shining example for your peers.”

“Your presence and your articulation of how you’ve overcome it gives us strength, frankly, to help deal with this,” Mr. Tesei said.

Mr. Marzullo was the one who brought Ms. Ellis to the meeting and, before she spoke, he spoke to his colleagues about why. Calling STOMP Out Bullying an “amazing national organization,” Mr. Marzullo said that since Bart’s death he had talked to a lot of people who wanted to help and didn’t know how. He added that he felt this was a great way to hear from an expert about how to combat bullying and how to get all of Greenwich’s resources focused on this.

“Because Greenwich is a town of 60,000 and so diverse, many challenges present themselves but it is imperative that we speak with one united voice because there is power in great numbers,” Mr. Marzullo said.

Board of Education Chairman Leslie Moriarty and board member Adriana Ospina attended the discussion, as did the town’s Youth Services Coordinator Jenny Byxbee, Commissioner of Social Services Alan Barry, Kids in Crisis Executive Director Shari Shapiro and Superintendent of Schools William McKersie. Dr. McKersie also spoke briefly, noting that the investigations are ongoing and that there was also a working group looking at possible failures in policies and saying this was a “heartwrenching time for the district.”

“We can’t talk about Bart’s case right now, but we are being aggressive in determining what we are doing and what we can do better,” Dr. McKersie said. “Every one of our schools has a safe school committee. Social and emotional learning is a required part of our goal setting, reviewed by the board and looked at carefully. I told our school leaders to emphasize social and emotional learning as we started up school. If you have to, downplay the academic and go to the social and emotional learning.”

Dr. McKersie said expulsions would be looked at for those who violated the district’s no tolerance policy for bullying and that there would also be exploration of terminations for proven cases of adults in the schools not living up to the Connecticut Code of Professional Conduct.

“I’m not racing to terminate people but adults in our system, if they’re not standing by what they have to do, we have to look to terminate,” Dr. McKersie said.

More information is available online at Stompoutbullying.org.

 

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