This story is a part of “The Loneliness Project,” a collaboration between The Ithaca Voice, WRFI, The Cornell Daily Sun and the Ithaca College Park Scholars Program. In a series of long-form online articles and multimedia, we will take a careful look at loneliness and its impact on mental health in Tompkins County. This fall, we will examine increasing reports of loneliness among young people nationally and what students are facing locally. Engaged Cornell and The Sophie Fund are funding this collaboration. Read more from the editors here.
LANSING, N.Y. – With about one in five students nationwide experiencing bullying at school, parents and administrators in a local school district are coming together to find ways to stop bullying and foster mental health.
In Lansing, efforts are underway throughout the school district to create a safer environment for students. Next week, Lansing community members will gather for the first meeting of the school district’s new task forces on school culture and climate. Last week, the Board of Education heard updates on social and emotional curriculum from the elementary, middle and high school principals. The week before, teachers gathered for trainings on crisis intervention and helping students who are experiencing stress or distress.
Some parents of students in the district, however, say the district hasn’t done enough. The August suicide of a recent Lansing graduate spurred many parents to action, and a vocal group is insisting that staff, faculty and administrators do more to intervene and communicate with parents when bullying occurs.
The Centers for Disease Control says bullying does not directly cause suicide, but suicidal behavior and bullying are related to similar risk-factors, including emotional distress, a lack of connectedness, and exposure to violence.
In Lansing, the loss of a student is the catalyst behind a movement to make changes designed benefit all students’ wellbeing, whether they experience, witness, or perpetrate bullying.
Channeling loss into change
Karl Czymmek said he doesn’t blame anyone, or any school, for his son Will’s suicide in August. He wants the Lansing School District to do more, though, to ensure that kids like his get the kindness and support they need in the face of bullying.
Czymmek described Will, who graduated with the class of 2018, as a caring and complicated young man who struggled with depression. He said Will was often the target of cruel treatment over his years in Lansing schools, especially on sports teams. Worse, he said adults who should have protected Will often witnessed or participated in bullying rather than intervening.
“One of the things that I know my son was sad about was where he observed bullying amongst his teammates in front of coaches, and nothing was said,” Czymmek told The Ithaca Voice. “Those types of situations need to be reported by the adults when they observe them.”
“What is a student supposed to take away when he or she observes bullying in front of adults and nothing is said? What does that say to the student? That we’re not serious about this,” Czymmek said.
As Will tried to navigate high school while dealing with depression, Czymmek said the bullying he experienced was toxic. Czymmek didn’t reach out to district administrators for help, partly because Will worried it would make the situation worse. Now, though, Czymmek wants there to be clear and effective steps in place for parents and kids looking for help.
“I’m just personally very driven to bring some good from an incredibly horrible situation,” Czymmek said. “To the extent that we have many children, everywhere, who have mental illnesses like depression, we really need to redouble our efforts to create environments where we at least don’t add to the hurt.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about half of adolescents experienced symptoms of a mental illness and about 13 percent experienced a major depressive episode in 2016. Parents who attended a community forum on mental health and bullying in Lansing schools on Oct. 18 said mental illness is widespread locally, too.
About 30 people packed into the Lansing Town Hall for the forum in October, which was coordinated by Beth Hogan. Hogan said her daughter was frequently the target of insults and harassment while a student in Lansing, and struggled to access mental health resources.
“Bullying is rampant,” she said at the front of the room. “We need to do what we can to create a mentally healthy school community.”
Czymmek recounted his family’s experiences to the group, telling attendees how Will lacked trusted adults in the district and worried he’d face retaliation if he reported bullying.
Over two emotional hours, other parents echoed Czymmek’s concerns. They shared stories of their kids’ experiences with bullying in classrooms, locker rooms, and online, and they vented frustrations at the response – or in some cases, lack thereof – from school administrators.
One parent said her daughter wanted to step in to stop a teammate from being bullied but didn’t have trusted adults to report to. “When she finally was ready to stand up for someone else, no one was there,” the parent said.
Multiple parents said they found it difficult to register complaints with the district, citing a lack of clear instructions on school web pages, and said they found administrators reluctant to escalate their complaints to the Lansing Board of Education or the New York State Board of Education.
Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in Ithaca, congratulated the group for coming together to address mental health. “With parents involved, I have faith that the school will really listen and work on this problem,” she said.
While the district works to address school policies and climate, she said parents and community members could work to support and build resilience among students. She emphasized the importance of teaching kids help-seeking behaviors.
“As we talk to our young people we have to make it really clear that suicide is not the only end-point of bullying behavior,” she said.
Marvin encouraged parents to create an atmosphere where it is safe to talk about feelings, to open dialogue by sharing their own feelings, and to listen to kids’ concerns without judgment and without minimizing them.
While she recognized that it might sound uncomfortable, she said sometimes parents need to ask their kids directly about whether they are having suicidal thoughts. She suggested they might ask something like, “With everything you’re feeling right now, do you ever think you might want to die?”
Throughout the forum the frustration in the room was palpable. So too, though, was a sense of hope that parents could act and that the district would improve.
Changes underway in Lansing
Lansing Superintendent Chris Pettograsso said while the district’s efforts to reduce bullying are not new, parent involvement has created a welcome sense of urgency.
“As an administration, we’re really proud of our community for saying that this is an important topic and that we need to have a sense of urgency related to our students’ mental health and wellbeing,” Pettograsso said.
The district’s new task forces will bring faculty, staff and community members together in small working groups to create healthy climates in each school building, the athletics department, and the special education department. Task force members were recruited through the district’s email list and mostly volunteered themselves. While meetings are not open to the public, Pettograsso said the groups will share takeaways publicly in the spring.
The athletics department has also created an Athletic Council to emphasize character development on sports teams. Athletic Director Matt Loveless said the council includes players from all sports teams, nominated by coaches for their potential to serve as mentors to peers and younger players. The council does not include coaches, but Loveless said he and the high school’s dean of students will hold coaches accountable to creating team cultures where players feel comfortable reporting bullying.
Pettograsso said when it comes to reporting bullying, the district follows state law. The district’s DASA webpage says it is Lansing school policy that, “Staff who know – or reasonably should know – of possible harassment must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. When harassment has occurred, staff must take prompt and effective steps to end it, eliminate any hostile environment and prevent it from reoccurring.”
Parents can speak with a school or district DASA coordinator if they feel staff or faculty are not adhering to that policy.
Pettograsso agreed that bullying needs to be addressed firmly when it occurs. “There needs to be zero tolerance for bullying and unkind behavior for everybody,” she said.
She emphasized, though, that the district is working to address the problem upstream, in an effort to prevent bullying from happening in the first place. “We really need to focus on our climate and culture,” she said. “Kindness, empathy, compassion and love need to guide us.”
Next steps and resources
Czymmek and Hogan are approaching the district’s latest efforts in good faith. “I’m hopeful that we’re on a better trajectory here in Lansing,” Czymmek said, adding that he trusts the sincerity of district leaders. Hogan likewise said she hopes efforts to change the schools’ culture and climate will make a difference.
Neither are under the illusion that change will come easily, though. Bullying is a nationwide problem, fueled not only by local school climates but also by broad social trends and social media.
Czymmek told fellow community members at the October forum, “It’ll take more than checking a few boxes and adding training.”
Nevertheless, he urged his peers not to grow complacent or despairing. “You eat an elephant one bite at a time,” Czymmek said.
Czymmek and Hogan, with help from the Sophie Fund, are in the process of planning the next steps for parents who want to create change in Lansing. In the meantime, resources are available throughout the community for families in need of immediate support.
Families can contact the Family Navigators Partnership, which is coordinated through the Franziska Racker Centers, to find bullying and mental health resources. Parents or students who are worried about their own or others’ suicidal thoughts or who are coping with suicide loss can also contact the Crisisline at 800-273-8255.
An earlier version of this story stated that the Lansing School District culture and climate task forces would be meeting on Nov. 19. Due to weather, the meeting has been postponed until Nov. 27.