Jack Gannon-Zebrowski will never again light up a friend’s world with his smile, or make anyone laugh in his goofy way.
But more than 100 people who turned out for a candlelight vigil in his memory Friday night at the Pattersonville Volunteer Fire Co. vowed to keep his voice alive — and to fight against a culture of bullying they say extends beyond the Schalmont Central School District.
The somber crowd included as many adults as teenagers, and the adults urged the young people not to look the other way.
“We can make a difference in each other’s lives if we don’t deny what the truth is. I am full of grief and reproach that I didn’t notice anything in Jack,” said Pamela Finn, a neighbor in this small hamlet in the town of Rotterdam.
“You guys have to be Jack’s voice now,” said her son, Shaun Mattarazzo.
On Saturday, Oct. 19, six weeks into his freshman year at Schalmont High School, Jack Gannon-Zebrowski hanged himself in the woods behind his Elm Street home.
Since then, the social media used by high school students has come alive with stories of Jack’s having been bullied, going back to his middle school years and continuing into high school. Hundreds of students turned out for his funeral 10 days ago.
His parents, Don and Robin Gannon-Zebrowski, said they had no idea Jack felt bullied, and wasn’t standing up for himself at school the way he stood up to them at home. They wish he’d told someone, rather than keeping his pain inside.
“The point is, you have to tell someone,” his father said. “You can’t let anyone bully you. And you can’t bully the bully.”
Schalmont school administrators have said they had no reports indicating the boy had been harassed, and Rotterdam police concluded that while Jack may have been subjected to inappropriate behavior, no crimes had been committed.
Family members are devastated, but are also calling for young students not to bully each other or retaliate against those suspected of bullying.
“I had him with me in September, and in October he is gone, and I don’t know why,” said Jack’s grandmother, Jacquie Gleckman of Schoharie, before she broke down in tears. “I believe in God, and I believe he’s not in pain anymore, but I’m very, very angry.”
Robyn M. Posson, a mental health counselor at Schenectady County Community College and Schalmont graduate, said students need to tell someone if they see or experience bullying.
“The research I am finding is that it makes a difference if just one person steps in, says don’t listen to that person, let’s tell someone,” said Posson, who is on sabbatical this semester to study bullying.
Posson, like other speakers, was sometimes drowned out by the noise of traffic from the New York State Thruway, just 100 yards from the Rynex Corners Road fire station.
The outdoor location in front of the fire station did, however, allow for a dramatic lighting of candles in the dusk, as one person passed the flame to another and then another. The winds of earlier in the day died down to let the vigil go forward outdoors as planned.
At the conclusion, the Rev. Kent A. McHeard of Woestina Reformed Church led the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer, but many people shouted “deliver us from bullying” in place of “deliver us from evil.”
Jack’s mother then called for a chant of “Stop the bullying!”, which was repeated loudly, and someone in the crowd shouted, “Love you, Jack!”
Posson said bullying goes on all over the country.
“Everywhere I go, everybody has been touched by bullying behavior,” she said. “This is an epidemic. The inoculation is speaking out.”
McHeard, who is also vice president of the Amsterdam Board of Education, acknowledged school administrators, in general, could listen more closely and deal more effectively with bullying complaints. The administrative response is often to remove the bullied child from class, he said, rather than deal with the bully.
“We need to change how schools take bullying,” said one woman who spoke from the crowd. “It is not acceptable for kids to pick on each other.”