By Jim Larkin
I find it interesting that Linden Superintendent Ed Koledo said Linden schools are “working hard to address bullying”, “Fenton Gay Teen Takes Own Life,” Between The Lines, Dec. 13, 2012, when in fact it has known for quite some time that it has a serious problem with bullying gay and lesbian students and has done little to address the problem. I should know. My granddaughter came out as a lesbian at Linden schools about one year before Linden junior Josh Pacheco committed suicide. She, too, was bullied and school officials did very little to protect her or even address that pervasive atmosphere of bullying in Linden schools. I have even heard students joke about how little they do.
If Linden officials had taken the situation seriously then and taken a clear stance that bullying of all kinds is not tolerated perhaps Josh Pacheco wouldn’t have had to go through the grief he did. Perhaps he would be alive.
To understand how deep the problem goes in Linden, please listen to my granddaughter’s story:
My granddaughter was bullied by a group of three girls who targeted her for being gay, taunting her with derogatory terms on her way to lunch and cornering her in the hallway and yelling mean things at her. When the trio would not let it go, my granddaughter’s friend went to the office and told on the girls and the vice principal’s “investigation” resulted in the trio saying it was a misunderstanding.
But the taunting continued and my granddaughter became more and more depressed and planned her own suicide. At the advice of her therapist, she was admitted to a hospital.
After she returned to school, her mother emailed the names of the three girls to the guidance counselor, principal and vice principal at Linden Middle School. After a week of hearing nothing from them, her mother emailed them again and left a voicemail with the superintendent. After 10 days of waiting for a response, and hearing nothing, my daughter became convinced no one was advocating for my granddaughter so she personally went to the school and took my granddaughter out of Linden Schools.
The principal was standing right there and did nothing as she checked her out. No questions. No words. My granddaughter was placed in another school district that took bullying and the protection of all students more seriously.
Superintendent Koledo finally did call my daughter. He listened, and his last words were that he would speak to his administrators and, “good luck.” Not one word of, “I’m sorry you had that experience,” or “this is how we handle these things” or anything. Simply, “good luck.” It was as if he was saying, we didn’t want your kid anyway.
To be fair, the principals did apologize later and were remorseful. My daughter let the principal know that there was another girl who was bullied by this same girl and that girl also left their district. My daughter wanted Linden officials to know there were other kids that were gay and needed a safe place to learn.
When my granddaughter was experiencing her problems, a group of Linden parents contacted my granddaughter’s best friend’s mom, telling her she should be careful about letting her daughter hang around my granddaughter because she was a lesbian. So, Linden Schools not only have a school culture of hatred for gays and lesbians, not surprisingly, they have a community that adds to it.
My daughter’s family moved out of Linden. The difference between Linden and her new school district is startling. She has an understanding counselor who seems to truly get her and helps her, and two administrators who look in on her, advocate for her, and make sure she has a safe place to learn. She has found a place where she can be herself, be accepted, and learn.
So you can understand how deeply my daughter took the news of a Linden student who was bullied and had committed suicide. She questions whether things would have been different if she would have filed a formal complaint with the Office of Civil Rights and demanded Linden get its act together. She wonders what might have happened to her own daughter if she had left her in Linden Schools.
But most of all, she wants the greater Linden community to learn from this tragedy. It will take not only teachers, but a supportive administration, AND community working together to make much needed changes in Linden. Schools can’t do it alone, but hopefully they are at least willing to try in the face of their recent suicide.