A few days after an Ocean City High School senior died in an apparent suicide, eight people spoke to the Ocean City Board of Education on Wednesday about bullying and mental health.
None suggested they knew the reasons why the young student chose to end her life, but the notion that she had been bullied at some point in her school career led the speakers to recall some of their own painful experiences in school.
In a series of often-tearful testimonials, the commenters described the scars left by bullying on themselves or their families, and they urged the board to expand existing policies and programs.
“It brings you back to your own experiences,” said Ocean City High School graduate Jill Mullins, now a mother of two. “It follows you through your life.”
“I know bullying was not the only factor here, but I hope that something really good comes out of this.”
Jaime Pustizzi, an Upper Township parent, recalled tormenters smearing food on her every day in the cafeteria at her old school. She said she started to skip lunch and hide in the girls’ bathroom until she found refuge in a guidance counselor’s office at lunchtime.
She urged the board to create a similar “safe place” for bullied kids to escape.
Ocean City parent Jamie Levai asked the board to consider ways to keep closer tabs on bullying through social media. She said she requires her children to “friend” her on the social media programs they use and “cannot believe how much stuff is on there” — not even protected by privacy settings.
The gathering was perhaps inspired by Casey Rosamond, a 2014 Ocean City High School graduate who encouraged people to attend the meeting through a new OCHS Make the Change page on Facebook.
Rosamond read five anonymous testimonials from students who said they experienced bullying that the Ocean City district had no effective way to stop. She asked the board to create a workshop to help bullies understand what they’re doing and how it affects their victims.
Suzanne Morgan, a mother of three girls in the district, said suicide prevention should be about education and awareness. She said depression, like cancer, is a disease.
Ocean City resident Yolanda Sutherland said the community would rally around a child with cancer but isolate a child diagnosed with a mental illness. She said she’s had a good experience with the school district helping a son who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in fourth grade and who recently graduated summa cum laude from college.
But she noted that three students have committed suicide at George Washington University, where her daughter attends college.
“We need to help them before we send them out on their own,” she said.
At the conclusion of public comment, Schools Superintendent Kathleen Taylor said the safety and well-being of students is the foremost concern of the district. She said the district is constantly looking at ways to make things better.
“There’s always room for improvement and always room for new ideas,” she said.
In their own comments later in the meeting, board members thanked the public for sharing their stories and said they would start a “serious discussion” on how to address some of the issues that were raised.
Earlier in the day, the district had posted the following message on its school websites, and Taylor read the statement at the opening of the meeting:
During this difficult and sad time, the Ocean City School District respects the privacy of the family. Our hearts are with the family as they deal with this tremendous personal loss.
When seeking reasons for teenage suicide, it is natural to look for direct causes related to teenage suicide cases. More often than not, the causes are complex and at times hard to understand. The School District’s counselors and staff have been readily available to help both students and staff cope with this tragic loss.
For information on dealing with grief, please visit the link at the bottom of this page or go to our website, where the same information can be found under the “News” Section listed as Grief Loss Resources.
It is important to understand that information maintained by our School District concerning students is protected and confidential under Federal and State laws and School Board Policy.
The safety and well-being of our students is always the School District’s foremost concern. As a School District, we strive on an everyday basis through policy, practices and actions to afford all students a safe and healthy environment in which to grow and learn.
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