Claudia Thomas will be remembered by many as a feisty original member of the Lakewood City Council who later broke ground as the state’s first black female mayor. But Thomas’ No. 1 legacy is her work as an educator and tenacious youth advocate.
Under her leadership, a group called Lakewood's Promise was founded in 2002 to improve the lives of kids, and see that every child has access to positive relationships and safe spaces. Since then, the America’s Promise Alliance has included Lakewood not once, not twice, but six times among the nation’s 100 Best Communities for Young People.
Thomas’ death last weekend was a loss for Lakewood, though not a tragedy, when you consider she lived 87 fruitful years.
Lakewood did suffer a tragic blow this month, however, with the untimely death of 14-year-old Gabby Cazares.
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That the Hudtloff Middle School student would take her own life, after reportedly being targeted on a regular basis by campus bullies, should be a catalyst for community self-reflection.
Where were the positive relationships when Gabby was relentlessly teased after transferring from Tacoma to Clover Park School District this year? Where were the safe spaces when girls followed her into the school bathroom to make fun of her, or cyberbullied her on social media?
If Claudia Thomas were alive and well today, we bet she’d be asking tough questions and fighting to make sure other children aren’t treated so cruelly.
In interviews with the TNT and in school board testimony this week, Gabby’s family and their supporters demanded accountability at Hudtloff. “You should not go to school feeling scared,” said older brother Danny Tobar. “You go to school to learn, to make friends, to make a better person of yourself.”
Clover Park administrators defend their staff, saying in a letter posted to the district website that policies and procedures were followed.
At least superficially, that seems true. The district has implemented a series of legislative mandates to address harassment, intimidation and bullying — HIB, for short. Washington banned HIB in public schools in 2002. The law was updated to include cyberbullying in 2007. And in 2011, the state started requiring every district to designate a primary contact person to handle bullying complaints and shortened timelines for acting on them.
Check, check and check, in Lakewood schools.
The district also has the requisite page on its website laying out HIB policies, prevention steps and reporting guidelines, along with a pledge from Superintendent Deborah LeBeau that “the safety of our students is one of our biggest priorities.”
But this latest tragedy should compel South Sound educators to raise the bar above what the law requires. Extra staff and peer intervention training. Expanded patrols before and after school. More zero-tolerance messaging in classrooms, assemblies and parent-teacher communications. No-nonsense disciplinary measures to wipe out the pestilence of bullying.
Why not raise the stakes for the worst tormentors? Federal Way schools developed a reputation years ago for its use of expulsion. At a time when local districts struggle with chronic absenteeism, we’d gladly say good riddance to a few bullies if it means victims feel comfortable attending school.
While anger over Gabby’s suicide is natural, bear in mind that her family’s emotions are raw, Lakewood police are investigating and judging matters now would be inappropriate.
The nationally publicized story of a 13-year-old Tacoma girl who jumped to her death from a freeway overpass in 2015 taught us that trying to draw a direct line of blame is problematic. In the end, the reasons why youth take their own lives, which happens in Washington on average twice a week, can be complex.
But this much we know: The death of Gabby Cazares stands as a sad case of Lakewood’s promise never realized.