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UPDATED: 'It was a daily verbal assault'

Vasquez students, staff, parents deal with shock of classmate's suicide

Posted: October 20, 2008 8:58 p.m.
Updated: December 22, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Vasquez High student Brenda Cruz talks to reporters after leaving school mid-day because she felt ill.

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UPDATED TUESDAY 9:20 p.m.
One day after a student killed himself at Vasquez High School in Acton, a stunned student body and faculty tried to make sense of the suicide Tuesday.

Jeremiah Lasater, a 14-year-old freshman, walked into a high school bathroom with a handgun and shot himself in the head Monday.

A student found Lasater lying in his own blood in a bathroom stall, said Stan Halperin, Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District superintendent. The student notified school officials and Halperin called for a campus lockdown.

School officials called in grief counselors; students organized a fundraiser for Lasater's family Tuesday and hosted a candlelight vigil on the football field Monday night.

"We take pride in taking care of our kids, and when one is hurting that badly, you wonder where we missed it," said Anne Dwyer, member of the Acton-Agua Dulce Parent Teacher Student Organization. "Everybody's shocked."

Dwyer, who knew Lasater since pre-school, was at the high school Tuesday to provide emotional support for students.

"There's usually five of us at the (school board) meeting," Dwyer said. "I imagine this week there will be more."

Students trickled quietly through the school parking lot Tuesday morning wearing the pain of a tragic event on their faces.

School officials told girls who organized a fundraiser for the Lasater family not to talk to the media.

Michael Daly was a special education teacher at High Desert School, which is the district's middle school. His contract was not renewed in June. He taught Lasater and is friendly with Lasater's mother.

Daly said he watched other students torment the boy day after day during middle school.

"It was constant. It was a daily verbal assault," Daly said.

Lasater stood 6 feet, 6 inches tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds.

"He was a football coach's dream," Daly said. But the size coveted by football coaches made Lasater stand out in all the wrong ways in the classroom, Daly said.

Other students teased, poked and stole from Lasater since elementary school, Daly said.

Lasater, who suffered from developmental issues, fought back with what he did have, Daly said.

"He got into a lot of fights with other kids," Daly said of the teen.

But Lasater couldn't throw enough punches to stop the teasing, he said.

"Jeremiah (Lasater) decided to do something different in high school. He wasn't going to fight anymore," Daly said.

That didn't stop the teasing. Students continued to taunt Lasater, Daly said.

"The problem was Jeremiah was teased relentlessly," Daly said. "There's significance of him being at school. Jeremiah is saying, ‘I'm tired of being your victim.'"

Lisa Alonso, the mother of a special-needs daughter, said bullying is common on the Vasquez campus.

"I've known about the bullying for more than two years and it keeps getting worse," Alonso said.

The district is investigating Lasater's suicide, Principal Rosemary Oppenheim said.

There were eight bullying incidents reported on the district's four campuses this year, Halperin said.

"We have a zero-tolerance policy, and when we have an incident of bullying or taunting we address it immediately," Halperin said. "We call in the parents and follow the policy, which included suspension and following the suspension with a learning pattern to teach the kids that bullying is wrong."

Suspending bullies is not enough, Daly said.

"They just don't have the resources to teach these kids new behavior," he said. "They have one counselor and one psychologist for the district."

Daly thought the solution might be simpler than that.

"The message I want to send is: If we practiced kindness, if the students practiced kindness, we wouldn't have had this happen," Daly said.

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Tuesday 5 a.m. (original story)

A 14-year-old Vasquez High School student shot himself to death in a school bathroom Monday, a sheriff's official said.

The boy's body was found at the small Acton school about 12:55 p.m., according to Sgt. David Infante of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

"The student walked into the bathroom alone, into a stall and shot himself," sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said early Monday evening.

Sheriff's deputies were immediately contacted and homicide detectives were at the school Monday on the 33600 block of Red Rover Mine Road, Infante said.

"This of course is a tragedy and with any tragedy the sheriff's homicide detectives will investigate what happened," Whitmore said.

More information in the case will be released as it becomes available, he said.

Representatives at the school could not be reached for comment. Acton is located on the outskirts of the valley, near Palmdale.

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