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Lansing School District

In the wake of a Lansing teenager's recent tragic suicide, Beth Hogan Callister said she was moved to take action.   She led a meeting of concerned parents on September 10th, and admonished the Board of Education to drastically improve the school district's response to bullying at its September 13th meeting.  Callister said her daughter had been subjected to bullying in the Lansing schools since 4th grade, and the system of dealing with bullying is ineffective.  At the September 13 Board of Education Meeting she pleaded for well trained professionals to replace employees currently charged with dealing with bullying situations, saying that a 'new and effective approach to eliminate bullying' is needed.

"After hearing Anne Czymmek speak at the funeral I felt the need to do something," Callister said. "Sophie's words, when she heard the news about Will, were, 'It could have been me, Mom.'  I am hoping that the Lansing school district will step it up and address the bullying issue more effectively."

About 60 people attended Callister's September 10th meeting.  She says School Board President Christine Iacobucci helped schedule a room at the District Office, and attended the meeting as well. 

Will Czymmek graduated from Lansing High School with straight As earlier this year and had begun studying nursing at the University of Buffalo.  He took his life the day before his 18th birthday.  Callister said that Czymmek's mother attributed bullying as one of the causes of his depression.

"Anne Czymmek's eulogy included a direct call to action for the Lansing schools community at large," she told the School Board. "I regret that I did not record it.  To the best of my recollection Anne mentioned that Will's depression, at least in part, resulted from bullying at school and that administrators and coaches were ineffective at stopping it.  Anne also said that another school assembly on bullying would not be enough."

According to New York State Open Meetings law, issues that cannot be discussed in the public portion of a meeting may be discussed in a closed 'Executive Session'.  They are strictly defined, and include "matters which will imperil the public safety if disclosed; any matter which may disclose the identity of a law enforcement agent or informer; information relating to current or future investigation or prosecution of a criminal offense which would imperil effective law enforcement if disclosed; discussions regarding proposed, pending or current litigation; collective negotiations pursuant to article fourteen of the civil service law; the medical, financial, credit or employment history of a particular person or corporation, or matters leading to the appointment, employment, promotion, demotion, discipline, suspension, dismissal or removal of a particular person or corporation; the preparation, grading or administration of examinations; and the proposed acquisition, sale or lease of real property or the proposed acquisition of securities, or sale or exchange of."
Typically 'Priviledge of the Floor' is a time in public meetings when community members can express concerns to municipal or school boards, but are not times when the boards respond.  The theory is that a board takes note of comments so that they can meaningfully consider the issues raised before acting on them. 

After Iacobucci explained that some topics could not be discussed, Callister read a prepared statement.  She didn't pull any punches.  She accused administrators of being unresponsive to her repeated pleas over several years to respond to bullying incidents when her daughter, who also recently graduated from Lansing, was in school. 

"My own daughter experienced bullying here in her time at the Lansing schools," she said.  "I brought this to the attention of the administration many times, but they were unable to stop the bullying.  I am not satisfied with the efforts that were made.  Over the years I made several visits and made many phone calls to the administration.  It was rare that I had a followup call telling me the problem had been addressed.  I offered to sit down with parents and kids to help work out these situations.  I was told, 'Let the kids work it out'.  I was also told nothing could be done.  One bullying assembly a year doesn’t cut it."

"I urge the administration and school board to address this now and to bring in consultants and experts to review all protocol, procedures and policies in cases of bullying in our schools or whatever it takes.  Perhaps the personnel responsible for dealing with bullying should be replaced with new professionals with specialized training.  It is clear that past approaches were not effective," she continued.

School Superintendent Chris Pettograsso reported to the school board on some school safety and bullying response procedures at its September 27th meeting.  She noted that some portions of emergency response plans must not be made public for security reasons.  But she did outline some procedures, including a reporting procedure in compliance with the Dignity for For All Students Act (DASA).  At that meeting she reported that faculty and staff will undergo training for dealing with any single or ongoing act of harassment.

Suicide is, of course, not just a Lansing issue.  The New York State Office of Mental Health announced Tuesday that 'The Sophie Fund', a local suicide prevention organization, has been recognized for its support of mental health initiatives.  The Sophie Fund was established after the 2016 death by suicide of 23-year-old Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell University student, by her parents Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack.  The fund received the 'Journey of Healing Award' during the 2018 Suicide Prevention Conference in Albany, for ‘exemplary advocacy by a Suicide Attempt or Suicide Loss Survivor’.

"The Sophie Fund is a beautiful example of how a tragic loss can transform a community. Scott and Susan took their painful loss and channeled it into a passion to save lives in Tompkins County," said New York State Office of Mental Health Commissioner Dr. Ann Marie T. Sullivan. "We thank Scott, Susan and everyone involved in The Sophie Fund for their hard work and commitment to suicide prevention."

When Callister finished speaking on the 13th, Pettograsso simply responded, "Thank you for coming and sharing that.  As you know we will be in touch."  But Iacobucci added that Pettograsso is already responding to Callister's concerns.

"We will not be addressing what you just said (at this meeting)," Iacobucci said. "We're listening to you right now.  I want everybody to know that the Superintendent did send out a message about future actions.  I don't want the public to think that all your concerns and the meeting that was held on Monday fell on deaf ears.  It did not.  We are taking this very seriously, and action is being taken."

Callister says she has a meeting scheduled with Pettograsso and Iacobucci next week.

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