Don and Robin Gannon-Zebrowski sat silently through most of the forum at the South Schenectady Fire Department intended to start a community dialogue in the wake of their teenage son’s suicide.
The parents, still reeling over the death of 14-year-old Schalmont High School freshman Jack Gannon-Zebrowski, patiently listened to a panel of speakers pulled from various social service and community organizations from around the county. But when a short question-and-answer session at the very end of the two-plus-hour forum Monday failed to address their main concern — the bullying they believe their son experienced prior to his death — they started what was to be the only dialogue of the evening.
The parents asked to know what the district planned to do about the issue of bullying at Schalmont schools. In specific, they asked when the district planned to address those students who bullied their son before he died on Oct. 19.
“My son isn’t here,” said Robin Gannon-Zebrowski. “He can’t speak, so his friends are trying to speak for him.”
The forum’s moderators initially told the crowd they intended to keep the discussion free of any specific details for fear that it might have a negative impact on people left in a fragile emotional state after the suicide. Darin Samaha, the moderator and director of Schenectady County’s Office of Community Services, politely tried to persuade the parents from speaking frankly about their situation by offering to speak with them privately afterward.
But the parents and their supporters wouldn’t relent. Don Gannon-Zebrowski said he and his wife wanted to open a dialogue about what happened to his son leading up to his suicide.
“The two vulnerable people are right here and we’re ready to discuss this right now,” he said.
Both asked district officials attending the forum when they planned to approach the students who were identified as tormenting their son. Robin Gannon-Zebrowski said something needs to be done to address the behavior.
“They know who they are, we know who they are and the school knows who they are,” she said.
The parents said they weren’t made aware of their son’s troubles at school until after his death. Superintendent Carol Pallas said she empathized with the family, but hasn’t found an instance that has called for discipline.
“I understand you want someone punished, but we can’t trace it back to one individual,” she told them.
Some attending the forum work black shirts with the Schalmont logo printed on the front and the deceased boy’s graffiti tag “JXS” written over it. The backs of the shirt featured Jack’s image and the words “We’ve got your back.”
Earlier in the forum, speakers urged the crowd of about 100 people to view suicide as a complex act related to a variety of causes. Melanie Puorto-Conte, the director of the state Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Initiative, also warned of the trouble in memorializing a suicide by referring to a dark chapter that occurred at a neighboring district several years ago.
In 2009, the Schenectady City School District had a rash of suicides, starting with the death of 17-year-old Kuanna Farrell during the fall semester of 2008. Some friends turned the girl’s porch into a makeshift memorial and her MySpace page into a place where they reported their own grief.
By winter, two friends had also committed suicide. Another three girls attempted suicide but were rescued.
“We didn’t catch some of the memorial stuff soon enough and we had more deaths,” Puorto-Conte said.
Pallas said the district is reflecting on what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the suicide. She said the district has heard concerns from residents and is working to address them to make Schalmont a safer place.
“Nobody is taking this tragedy lightly,” she said.
The forum also featured Tom O’Clair, whose 12-year-old son, Timothy, committed suicide in March 2001. The Rotterdam father was instrumental in lobbying for Timothy’s Law, legislation passed in 2006 that requires insurance companies to cover mental disorders as they cover other medical disorders.
In discussing his son’s death, O’Clair said speculating on the reasons someone commits suicide isn’t productive, since the reasons are always complex. He urged people to come together rather than assigning blame.
“The best that we can hope for is to come together and heal together,” he said.