Don’t ignore wake-up call from bullied kids

A shrine in the family’s living room honors 14-year-old Gabby Cazares, who committed suicide on May 3.
A shrine in the family’s living room honors 14-year-old Gabby Cazares, who committed suicide on May 3. dperine@thenewstribune.com

Last week a family and community tragedy could have been prevented. A girl hung herself from a tree in her backyard. She was only 14, a first-generation American 8th grader at Hudtloff Middle School in Lakewood, and as a News Tribune story documented, she had been bullied – relentlessly.

In 2011, the Clover Park School District announced its policy on the “Prohibition of Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying.” Superintendent Debbie LeBeau wrote:

“The safety of our students is one of our biggest priorities. Harassment, intimidation and bullying are very serious offenses and our new policy and procedures ensure that our students are safe…”

With such a safety net in place, how did it happen that Gabby took her own life from bullying?

Gabby Cazares, whom we have known since she was a young child, was a transfer student in the last year of middle school, a difficult transition for any young person. Until this transfer, she had been a happy, sociable teenager who looked forward to going to school and seeing her many friends.

Instead of welcome, unfortunately, her daily existence at her new school was made so tortuous that she begged her mother not to make her go each day.

When Gabby’s mother, Marie, found out her daughter had been eating lunch in the bathroom to avoid bullying, she pleaded with her former school in Tacoma to take her back. But it was not possible because the family had switched districts.

Gabby, who once loved school and learning, would return home almost daily in tears with a new horror story of abuse and cruelty at the hands of other students. Her mother’s frequent visits to the school left her feeling dismissed and condescended to.

Virtually nothing was done for this vulnerable adolescent, despite district policies. People in positions of power and influence appear to have ignored family pleas for help.

Gabby’s family said they feel that her death might have been prevented had more been done by the school and local police authorities.

During a memorial gathering at Hudtloff on Monday, hundreds of people turned out, including students from both of Gabby’s schools. Several teenagers stood on a wall to tell their story about Gabby. The pain in their faces and the tears that were shed spoke to their insufferable loss. They’d lost their “best friend” as well as their innocence.

This is a much-needed wake up call – for all of us — but especially at the school board and legislative levels.

Action must be taken to address what is a national epidemic of harassment, bullying and sexual assault of innocent youth, leading to teenage suicide.

It seems the #MeToo campaign may have overlooked what is happening to the teenage population. Many like Gabby are victims of relentless harassment, which is likely to include sexual harassment and assaults.

Yet the younger generation’s cries go unrecognized, despite the fact that suicide is the second-leading cause of death for young people age 15 to 34. And Gabby was only 14.

When the family went to Hudtloff to tell school officials about her death, we were with them. There was only one thing this grieving family needed the principal to say — common words of decency and compassion: “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Instead, there was stonewalled silence, a stunning omission. What has happened to us that our school administrators cannot even say “I’m sorry”?

A broader conversation has to start now, in Pierce County and across the country. Instead of burying this topic it must be brought into the light. We, and Gabby’s family, want to start a difficult but important discussion leading to systemic solutions.

Innocent children like Gabby are dying right here in our community, and it can be prevented.

Deborah J. Rosen owns Good CitiZEN Dog in Tacoma. Reach her by email at Deborah@goodcitizendog.com. Suzanne Holland teaches ethics in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Puget Sound. Reach her at sholland@pugetsound.edu

For help

National (24 hour) Suicide Prevention Hotline – 800-273-8255

National Suicide Hotline –800-SUICIDE (784-2433)