Bullying’s tragic results — (Lincoln Journal Star)

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Lincoln Journal Star (NE) 

March 20, 2005

Author: JoANNE YOUNG, Lincoln Journal Star Lincoln Journal Star

OMAHA – Here lies Tony Cappellano, his future buried under 50 cubic feet of pale Omaha dirt smoothed flat on a wide, grassy hill.

Above him, 68 pinwheels spin and rattle. A half-deflated Mylar balloon thumps the top of his grave in the wind. Happy 18th Birthday. Happy 18th Birthday.

Over the hill and two minutes south of Calvary Cemetery lives his family – mother, father, brother – in a ranch-style home at the top of a circle. The middle-class neighborhood is where he grew up and where he decided he would die, alone in the basement bathroom on Jan. 10 at 2:20 in the afternoon.

Six minutes northwest of where Anthony Michael Cappellano lies now is the school he attended. Signs in Westside High School’s entryway display the achievements of students and teachers.

Twenty-five Omaha World-Herald all-academic team nominees. Highest average ACT score in the metro. Most National Merit Scholarship semifinalists in the state. Highest SAT scores in the school’s history. Nebraska’s 2005 teacher of the year.

But taped to the inside front door is another sign, one that advertises a forum on suicide for students, parents, staff and community members. Tony was one of two Westside senior boys to kill himself this school year. The boys died four months apart.

Suicide can result from a complex mix of problems that frequently includes depression. But a significant factor in Tony Cappellano’s decision to die, say family members and the private counselor who treated him, was bullying he endured at Westside High.

The letter fills 27 lines.

In it, Tony takes responsibility for what he is about to do. It is not God’s fault, he writes, not his parents’ fault, not his school’s fault. His counselor didn’t fail him.

He just stopped caring about the things he once cared about. The sadness people would feel if he ended his life became less important.

He acknowledges the selfishness of his reasons.

A shroud of depression blocked Tony’s view of the positive things in his life: loving parents and brother, caring family and friends, a bright future, a world that needs all the Tony Cappellanos it can get.

He had been depressed, probably since fifth grade, said his counselor, Amanda Duffy Randall. But the bullying at school played a huge role in his life and death, she said.

He wanted to be the happy kid he once was, accepted by everyone. He couldn’t endure that a handful of kids had turned on him – he could tell you the exact moment it happened in his sophomore year – and try as he might, he could not win them back. Their taunts and teasing punished him every day.

You’re ugly, they’d say.

Your hair looks gay.

Hey, Handicappellano, one boy would call.

They’d throw tiny paper wads at him. Push him. Laugh at him.

“Tony was especially vulnerable to it,” the counselor said. “He was a very approval-seeking kid, period. The bullying had untold effects on him.

“In Tony’s case, what’s scary is that he was from the most loving, enveloping, caring family in the world.”

Physically, he was no different than many boys his age. A lean 5-foot-11 with brown eyes and dark hair that showed his Sicilian heritage. In high school, he had played football, basketball, lacrosse, track.

Tony’s tenderness and eagerness to please may have captured the attention of boys who got their fun making fun. He had never understood why people would say mean things or hurt other people’s feelings.

“Combined with his depression, it really made him vulnerable,” Randall said.

He ruminated on the slights he received at school.

He went home for lunch or didn’t eat because he couldn’t risk walking into the cafeteria with the two-story wall of windows and running into those boys.

“I don’t think most of his friends had a clue about the distress he was in,” Randall said. “He would put on a smile every day and go to school.”

In their sessions, she said, they talked openly about suicide. The Catholic teenager wanted to know if it was a mortal sin.

“Yes,” she told him. “It is.”

Nobody who loves you gets over it, she added.

He tried antidepression medication – Effexor, then Prozac.

But he lived in an abyss of melancholia that no one – and no treatment – could reach. Because God knows, they tried to pull him out.

***

Students in schools from one end of the country to the other experience or witness name calling, teasing and bullying every day.

Studies, surveys and crime statistics show nearly one-third of young people are bullied at least once a month. Sixty percent of American teens witness bullying at least once a day. Many students say they are harassed or bullied on school property because of their race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.

Bullying victims are more likely to suffer such physical problems as colds and sore throats, poor appetite and sleep difficulties. They’re more likely to be depressed and suicidal.  [and they are more likely to be prescribed antidepressants – SSRI Ed]

The effects of bullying can last far after high school graduation.

In his book “Real Boys Voices,” William Pollock writes that teasing, bullying and the need to fit in are at the top of a list of concerns of boys across America. Boys abuse each other with verbal taunts, physical threats and, sometimes, lethal violence.

“It is a constant and widespread problem that is insidiously eating away at the quality of life of many American boys,” Pollock writes. “It is a life where they cannot let their feelings show and dare not flinch, for fear of ending up humiliated, seriously injured or dead.”

Bullying, he says, is “nothing less than a national disgrace.”

Some Nebraska school districts have antibullying policies, but not all. The Nebraska Board of Education encourages but does not require school districts to establish policies and strategies to “emphasize and recognize positive behaviors that promote a safe and secure learning environment for all students and staff.”

State Sen. Gwen Howard of Omaha introduced a bill in the Legislature this session that would have required every school district in Nebraska to adopt an antibullying policy. The bill didn’t make it out of the Education Committee because of resistance of school administrators and school boards.

“It’s unfortunate,” Howard said. “People are very aware there is a problem that needs to be addressed.”

She will not give up.

“I’m dauntless,” Howard said. “I fully intend to go back in the next legislative session with another bill.”

***

Five or six students, mostly boys, teased and bullied Tony Cappellano, his friends said. Those same students bullied other kids at the school, too, they said.

“They put him down really badly,” said Zac Greunke, one of Tony’s close friends. “It was really mean. They did not consider his feelings.”

Zac said Tony talked to him about it only once, telling Zac how much it bothered him.

“He was the nicest guy. He always thought about others before himself. He was too nice of a guy to stand up to them.”

To
ny’s cousin, Westside senior Angie McCall, said he talked to her a lot about the harassment. He told her how much he wanted to be in that crowd, but that they hated him.

Another cousin, Hilary Williams, also a Westside senior, said she could tell the difference between malicious teasing and just kidding around. Bullying she sees at Westside seems malicious, she said.

“Tony was a victim because he was – it may sound like a cliché – but he was too nice,” Hilary said. “He never fired back. He pretended to laugh it off.”

***

Westside recently released results of an October survey to which 74 percent of the school’s nearly 2,000 students responded. The survey identified the extent and nature of bullying at Westside.

Thirteen percent of respondents said bullying was a problem at the school. Reasons they gave for why students are bullied were (in order of frequency) appearance, athletic performance, academic performance, race, sexual orientation, religion or family income.

Students said most of the bullying occurred in the hallways. Other most common places were the cafeteria, classrooms, on the Internet and at athletic events.

A districtwide survey showed 6 percent – 119 – of Westside High School students were bullied six or more times. Thirty-three percent – 656 – were bullied at least once in high school, about the same national percentage shown in a federal report.

Districtwide, many students said they were concerned about incidents they witnessed but didn’t report because they were afraid they, too, would be bullied.

A district committee is looking deeper into the survey results to determine how to reduce the incidence of bullying through prevention, curriculum, training and procedures.

Westside Vice Principal Pat Hutchings said bullying recently has been added to a list of student conducts that can result in suspension or expulsion.

“What’s hard,” Hutchings said, “is to get kids to report it.”

After Tony’s death, the school held a couple of open forums at which students could, without fear of reprisal, talk about their concerns with an assistant principal and counselors. Twenty to 40 students participated, Hutchings said.

“We want students to know there are people who will listen and take their concerns to heart,” she said.

There always will be some students who have problems in high school, she added.

“Some adolescents truly don’t feel welcome. That’s been true through the ages,” Hutchings said. “Alienation is part of the experience. We’re always watching out for those kids who may feel unwanted or unwelcome.”

Some students have been critical of the school, which they say did not, in the wake of Tony’s death, bring in crisis counselors from outside the school to talk with students and staff who were upset or grieving.

Westside student Kathryn Gellatly shared a class with Tony and said a teacher quickly moved people around to fill his empty seat after he died.

“Someone was sitting in his desk and I was thinking, ‘No, don’t sit there,'” she said.

Tony’s cousin Hilary said the school seems to have learned nothing from the two senior deaths.

“It amazes me that life seems to go on as before,” she said. “Nothing changes.”

Dick Lundquist, Westside guidance director and a licensed mental health practitioner, said the district uses its own crisis response team to work with students. It is modeled after the crisis response of Lincoln Public Schools.

“Nothing really works well in such unhappy events as these,” Lundquist said, “and schools are always limited by both confidentiality laws and ‘human and humane laws’ as to what we announce to students when a tragedy such as a suicide occurs.”

The school’s concern in any tragedy is to help the family as much as possible and provide help and support to students, he said, and at the same time run a school and bring it back to some type of normalcy.

***

Kitty Cappellano knew the end of the school year was drawing near and her son would be out of high school in just a few months. He could hang onto that and to a promising future.

In July, he had gone on a fishing trip with his father and family friends to Pacwash Lake in Northern Ontario. The lake and the trip were dear to him.

“Upon my arrival in Lake Pac Wash, I feel free,” he wrote about the trip. “Stress, rules and unkind people do not exist there. Only the waves of the lake brushing up against the boat and rocking it, the soft wind blowing in your ear, and the fish jumping out of the water are there.”

Six months later, he would take a Monday off from school, and before the end of the day he would carry his rosary and a cross down the basement steps, take a hunting rifle from the gun cabinet and end his life.

“We’re devastated and we’re confused,” his mother said. “He’d say to me, ‘Mom, you know I’d never do anything like that.’  If I had thought he would, believe me, I would have had him sewn to my hip.”

The temperature failed to reach zero the morning Tony was buried on that west Omaha hill. Twelve hundred people attended the funeral.

“If he just could have seen this,” his mother said. “People loved him. But you know what? It didn’t matter to him, if there were two people who didn’t like him.”

His family and friends continue each day to struggle with Tony’s decision.

“I wake up every morning and live every moment of his life and death,” his mother said.

In a note to family and friends after the funeral, the Cappellanos said Tony had two problems: his depression and his inability, because of his kindness and sensitivity, to accept the world’s harshness.

“In his memory, be kind to everyone. If the world can be a kinder place because of Tony, his death will be less of a tragedy and his life even more a reason to celebrate.”

Reach JoAnne Young at 473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com.
Copyright, 2005, Lincoln Journal Star