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Boy's suicide exposes division

Posted: October 24, 2008 10:16 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

An Acton man listens to other members of the community speak at the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting Thursday night, to discuss the suicide of Vasquez High School freshman Jeremiah Lasater on Monday.

 
A shocking suicide might have divided a quiet, rural town.

The two sides squared off at the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District board meeting Thursday night.

One looked for answers in the suicide of Jeremiah Lasater, a 14-year-old Vasquez High School special education student who shot and killed himself in a school bathroom Monday.

The other asked the community to move past the finger-pointing.

"What if he came to school with a different mind set?" Phil Smith said about Lasater. "This could have been an even bigger tragedy."

Smith's granddaughter attends Vasquez High.

Smith didn't speak up at the meeting, but he said afterward the school board isn't taking the issue seriously enough.

"I'm afraid the board is trying to whitewash this and sweep it under the rug," he said. "I didn't think they addressed anything tonight."

Bullies taunted and teased Lasater for years, school employees said during the meeting. The 6-foot, 6-inch, 300-pound boy made a choice not to fight back, but the bullying didn't stop.

A student found Lasater lying in his own blood in a bathroom stall Monday afternoon, according to sheriff's officials.

Smith and more than 60 community members attended the Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting Thursday night. Some came to highlight the positives at the school district.

Others came for answers to why a student brought a gun to school and killed himself.

"At the end of last school year we gathered our handbook policies and paid special attention to bullying," said Mark Distaso, school board president.

School officials raised the consequences for bullying, he said.

"In some cases we eliminated the stepped approach to punishment, and some bullying can result in expulsion," Distaso said.

Some school employees weren't convinced the school did all it could to prevent the tragedy.

"If the lunch ladies knew, how is it people are saying they didn't know? Why are there blinders on?" said Denise Tracey, a school cafeteria employee.

Tracey knew Lasater and said she saw the teasing and the bullying, but didn't see much from the school district.

"Why didn't they have a meeting and discuss his needs, his history and make sure the high school was fully aware of his needs?" Tracey asked.

She said the school district had plenty of time to prevent the tragedy.

"It didn't start in high school. It didn't start the last few months," Tracey said, choking back tears. "I can only do so much from my stupid little window," she said.

Jane Barcelo taught Lasater in the second grade. She remembered a boy with a big smile and big heart.

She also remembers the taunting from other kids. "I made sure his shirts were on right and his glasses were clean, because that's what he was bullied for," Barcelo said.

For Stephanie Spencer, Lasater's story sounds too familiar.

"I was a special-education kid," she said. "Simple pointing and laughing needs to stop."

Spencer survived the bullying and the teasing and went on to college.

"I became a pre-school teacher because of kids like Jeremiah," Spencer said.

Community members insisted that Acton and its schools are not harbors for hate.

"Everyone needs to stay together. We need comfort and healing, not finger-pointing and blaming," said Kim Milewsky, a district employee.

"Our school has fallen on hard times," Tracey Dashnaw said.

She read from a written statement and pleaded with the crowd to take time to heal and start looking for solutions to avoid future tragedies. "What can I do to fix what we destroyed?"

Merri Thomsen, the mother of an elementary-school child, said Lasater's death marks a place from which to move forward as a school district.

"I want to know what we can do from the elementary school all the way up because this child was aching on the inside," Thomsen said.

The Lasater family may have the answers, Distaso said.

"We met with Mr. Lasater earlier today and he told us about Project 51.

The project is a 24-hour hotline where kids who are being bullied can call and talk to a counselor," he said.

Lori Laskey is a parent of a child in the school district.

"If they continue to bully kids, they can go to Palmdale High School and we'll see who gets bullied then," she said.

School board members echoed that Lasater's death will not be in vain and that the school district and the community can take something away from the loss.

"If anything good comes out of this for our teachers, students and parents, it's that bullying is unacceptable," said Ron Bird, school board vice president.

An internal investigation into the suicide is under way, Distaso said.

There is no timetable for the completion of the investigation, he said.

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