Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Aftermath of a tragedy

Interesting letter in Massachusetts reveals how stereotypes play out:

Gloucester Daily Times,

February 04, 2008

To the editor:

This is an open letter to the superintendent and School Committee:

I would like to express my shock and disappointment at the Gloucester school system and O'Maley Middle School's handling of the recent loss of an eighth-grade student. My daughter was a friend of the young man and is close friends with many of the students most affected by the recent events. I was deeply saddened by the news, and I hope that this letter does not cause his family any more pain than they must already endure, but I also feel that someone needs to speak on behalf of the children who have been left behind by this tragedy.

O'Maley students reported for school on Thursday and went about their normal routine. Some of the students were scheduled for a field trip that day, and the staff felt it best that the tragic news was not announced until after those students returned. That afternoon, students were told the news that the young man had "died unexpectedly." Many of his closest friends went home early, grief-stricken and shocked. A generalized phone call was made to all parents to let them know about the situation at 1:30 p.m. that day, and the school had made arrangements to leave the library open for two hours as a meeting place for any students who felt the need for counseling. A letter was also sent home, again stating that the young man had "died unexpectedly."

By the time my daughter had arrived home that afternoon, I had learned the truth from several other parents and friends — that the young man had taken his own life. My daughter had heard rumors before she had even arrived home. The loss of her friend was hard enough to comprehend, but the shock that he had taken his own life brought many other emotions to the surface. All of her friends were left with a feeling of disbelief, and many started to question whether they had missed any hints that their friend may have been trying to give them. Even if he had left clues, no one could have known how serious his intentions were. All of these complicated feelings are too much for anyone to deal with, no matter a typical 13-, 14- or 15-year-old.

What was the Gloucester school system's response to this crisis? Two hours of "grief counseling," a nonspecific letter to parents, and send the children home for a four-day weekend.

Although the school did not, or perhaps could not, admit that the tragedy was a suicide, they should have treated the grief counseling as such. The school most certainly did not give parents enough information to help their own children, nor did they lead them to the proper resources to deal with their children's grief. Most parents learned the truth through the newspaper the following day and were left to try to guide their children through a complicated and unfamiliar grieving process, unprepared and without assistance.

O'Maley students returned to school the next week, many still too upset to try to go to class. Some relied on each other for support. Some teachers were helpful, others were not. It seemed as if the school staff were trying to "hush-up" the tragedy.

A small group of the young man's closest friends, all O'Maley students, decided to wear T-shirts in remembrance — light pink with small lettering bearing the young man's name, the date of his death, and "we will never forget you." These children were pulled out of their classes by the staff and told they were "forcing their opinions onto other students."

So these grieving children are not only expected to cope with this tragedy without any help, but are also expected accept other students' rude and disrespectful comments? I understand free speech and all, but whatever happened to common courtesy?

One of the issues appears to be that this boy was part of a group known to be "Goth" or "Emo" by other kids. These children often wear black clothing, grow their hair long and dye it various colors, and may listen to certain kinds of music. Both of my daughters listen to the music, and occasionally dress in dark clothing, but they are part of the group no matter what they choose to wear each day.

It seems to be a common belief that children in this group are continually harming themselves, or that they are all having suicidal ideologies. I think the school system needs to stop assuming that every child who dresses in dark clothing will injure themselves. They also need to remember not all children who inflict harm on themselves dress in dark clothing. These children are individuals, and they do not fit into a general category. Take a minute to get to know them before you judge them.

After talking with other parents, whose own middle and high school children are part of this crowd, I was shocked to discover that many of these children have recently admitted to being physically accosted by other students and verbally harassed with such comments as "Why don't you go kill yourself?"

Why is the school system doing nothing to ensure the safety and well-being of ALL of their students? And why are they more interested in protecting the freedoms of those who choose to make rude comments, not the freedoms of all students who choose to express themselves in a way that does not harm others?

I have raised my children to be individuals, to think and act for themselves, and to accept the consequences of their own actions. I believe that is what will teach them to become compassionate, responsible adults.

Perhaps the Gloucester school system should re-evaluate what it expects our children's future contributions to society will be — and whether an atmosphere of prejudice and harassment will lead them there.



Veterans Way, Gloucester

Letter: How can O'Maley students deal with grief? - GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

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