Jack Gannon-Zebrowski dwelled in two contrasting worlds.
At home, the artistic 14-year-old Pattersonville boy enjoyed skateboarding, shooting hoops with his friends and building forts in the woods. The eldest of three children, he carried a keen sense of humor, a big heart and an unyielding love for his family.
“With us,” his mother, Robin Gannon-Zebrowski, said, and then she paused. “He was just Jack,” finished Don Gannon-Zebrowski, his father.
If you’re thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
But at Schalmont High School, Jack was a quiet, gawky freshman who kept to himself and struggled with a learning disability that often forced him to work twice as hard as his classmates. His shaggy blond hair and tight jeans set him apart from the school’s mainstream, making him a target for those who viewed him as an outcast, friends later told his parents.
These two worlds — separated by roughly 13 miles of highway extending between Schalmont and the small hamlet at the western edge of town — seldom intersected. Jack’s parents never saw their son distressed or depressed, and to them, he seemed just like any other teenage boy pulling through puberty, poised for adulthood.
Everything changed on Saturday, Oct. 19. During the late afternoon, Jack wandered into the woods behind his Elm Street home to an area where he and several friends had made a clearing, wrote a note to his family on one of the trees and then hanged himself.
His 10-year-old sister found him a short time afterward. Don rushed to his son and tried desperately to lift him until help could come, but it was too late.
Jack’s death left his family reeling, searching for answers. And in the hours that followed, their confusion over what had pushed their son to take such drastic measures only grew.
As word of Jack’s suicide spread, posts on Facebook and Twitter began broadcasting a narrative about the world he lived in at Schalmont. Classmates quickly blamed his death on the treatment they saw him subjected to regularly in middle school and then during his first two months of high school.
“I’m mad at everyone who did stuff,” wrote one student on Facebook. “It was a collective effort on many people. This bullying [expletive] is going to end one way or another.”
Stories emerged about Jack being shoved around in the hallways, having his books knocked from his hands and being taunted with derogatory names. Jack was humiliated on the bus, students said, pelted with objects and in one recent instance doused with milk by a classmate.
“After we got back from the hospital [on Oct. 19], I opened up his Facebook page … and I just followed this stuff,” his father recalled.
Accusations that Jack was regularly bullied during his time at Schalmont continued into the school week. Don and Robin were stunned, since neither suspected their son was troubled until hearing it secondhand through his friends.
“The kids came to us, and they were saying he was being bullied,” Robin said.
The district’s account of Jack’s time at Schalmont is markedly different. Though administrators visited the family’s home to offer their condolences the day after Jack’s death, they provided no indication that he was having trouble at school.
District administrators publicly reiterated this account again in letters sent home with students two days following Jack’s suicide and again on Monday: They had no reports to suggest that the boy was being harassed. Rotterdam police also opened an investigation into the circumstances leading up to the death and determined that while Jack may have been subjected to inappropriate behavior, none of it rose to the level of criminal.
“We have no evidence or suggestion either way that there was criminal conduct in this case,” Rotterdam police Lt. Michael Brown said this week.
The disparity between the student accounts and the official stance of the district has frustrated Jack’s family. They believe that the angst their son felt at Schalmont is shared by others — that bullying on the campus isn’t an infrequent occurrence — and that the district needs to take a closer look at how students are behaving at school.
Since Jack’s death, the family has been approached by some claiming that the culture of bullying is ingrained at Schalmont. They’ve heard stories about how the district’s policy to stymie the practice hasn’t done anything to improve the situation.
“Right now we’re in a battle not only advocating for our son but bringing awareness to the school,” Robin said.
Schalmont Superintendent Carol Pallas said the district has provisions in place through the Dignity for All Students Act — state legislation enacted last year and intended to give public school students an educational environment free from discrimination or harassment. In accordance with the law, the district appointed administrators at each of Schalmont’s three schools to serve as a go-to point for allegations of bullying.
The district also tries to educate incoming freshmen on how to report instances of harassment. Still, Pallas admits the system isn’t problem-free.
“Even with all this in place, inappropriate behavior can still occur where either incidents are not reported or not caught,” she said in an email. “This is where we most likely need to look for additional support in how to find and address the unreported or unseen incidents that go on.”
The district also has to contend with the vast sum of information filtering through social media, some of it not necessarily accurate. Social media has also provided a mode in which students angered by the treatment Jack endured before his death have lashed out against those they believe to be his tormentors.
“It’s hard to distinguish what may be probable information from that which is simply false,” Pallas said, “and then comments can be hurtful and spread wrongful information that is hard to react to.”
Pallas said the district does intend to reach out to Jack’s family again to begin a dialogue. She said the district also wants to start a dialogue with the community on how to best address the issues of suicide prevention and bullying.
Jack’s parents eagerly await this dialogue. They want Jack’s classmates to realize the tragedy of their son’s silence, that students need to speak up about bullying when they see it, whether it’s against them or their peers.
“This isn’t the way,” Robin said of her son’s death. “If you want to get attention, be loud. Call out your bully. Call out over and over again.”