A teen suicide: Parents raise awareness, classmates mourn, school pledges to keep fighting bullying — (Lacrosse Tribune)

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La Crosse Tribune

Randy Erickson

The parents of a Holmen High School sophomore who killed himself have started a campaign to raise awareness about cruel behavior.

Kevin Romanowski, 16, took his life Feb. 17 in his bedroom. In the weeks since, family, friends and classmates have honored his life and raised awareness of bullying.

Kevin’s mother, Connie Romanowski, met with the Holmen High School student body on March 3.

“We also ask the student body to brainstorm on positive ways to improve your school and community,” she told the students. “In Kevin’s honor, I ask you to leave in silence.”

“It was amazing as the students walked out,” Holmen High School Principal Bob Baer said. “You could hear a pin drop in the hallways.”

Holmen High School has formal verbal and written reporting systems to combat bullying. It also supports anonymous online reporting with a system called Sprigeo. The school investigated nearly three dozen bullying reports last school year, associate high school principal Wayne Sackett said.

“We are constantly doing preventive measures to create a safe and comforting environment,” Superintendent Kris Mueller said. “But we also want to improve and make it a better environment.”

Counselors were ready the day after Kevin’s death.

Connie said Kevin was always sensitive to other people’s emotions and was called a crybaby by classmates in elementary school at the Stanley-Boyd School District. As he grew older, Peter and Connie said, he shared less and less with them. They weren’t aware of recent issues of bullying or depression before their son took his life.

“Kevin kept many things to himself, talking very little of things happening at school with us and his sister, Bridgett,” Connie said in her statement to students. “We will never know what took Kevin to that dark place that particular day where he felt his only option to end the bullying was to take his own life.”

Connie shared with students feelings of disappointment with the district over its handling after the incident. She also said communication has opened up in the weeks since. The Romanowski family has been brainstorming with school leaders on the potential of updating bullying policies as well as creating new resources and programs to educate and help students.

On Feb. 22, the Monday after Kevin’s suicide, Holmen students, some parents and staff gathered in the school parking lot at 6 p.m. and released blue and white balloons. About 50 people waited somberly before quietly shuffling away after the last balloons had flown out of sight. Many students wrote messages on their balloons, including Rachael Molstad, a junior in the Holmen show choir for which Kevin was a member of the tech crew. Her message: “Your show choir family is going to miss you.”

Kevin was always smiling and having a blast during show choir, she said, singing and dancing backstage to the performances.

Logan Graff, another junior at Holmen High School, said he was one of Kevin’s best friends. They were both in show choir and on the wrestling team, and had long been close.

“I knew Kevin since fourth grade,” Logan said.

Graff said he knew Kevin had been bullied but didn’t want to share details. He wrote about life being too short on the balloon he released to remember Kevin.

Molstad said she saw kids taunt Kevin and laugh at him at school.

“But he always seemed happy during show choir,” she said. “He was always smiling. He was always dancing backstage.”

Kevin’s mother has been outspoken on social media, speaking about bullying and sharing ways Holmen students have honored Kevin’s memory. One of her posts links to an online fundraiser asking for $1,000 to help promote awareness of teen suicide and bullying.

Connie found Kevin and called 911, according to a La Crosse County Sheriff’s Department report. Kevin’s father, Peter Romanowski, initially said the installation of the CAPX2020 power lines through the family’s yard had made things stressful for the family. He was concerned the cats had been acting strange and wondered whether the power lines had affected his son’s mood.

The Romanowskis have been in a dispute with Xcel Energy since 2013 over the CAPX2020 line and a buyout of their home. In an interview, they said they hoped to move to a new home soon.

Found in Kevin’s bedroom were a suicide note and two other notes written by Kevin, along with fluoxetine pills, the generic form of the antidepressant Prozac. During questioning Feb. 17, family said they hadn’t noticed any signs of Kevin being depressed or suicidal, but that an uncle had recently died and Kevin had lost his job at Farm & Fleet. The sheriff’s report also mentions a suicide threat, but redactions to the report make the circumstances unclear.

The report also redacted the majority of the the suicide note. The department said it contained passwords and the names of juveniles. The end of the note reads, “Tell the school to take down my tooling.” “Bully that’s why” is written in the upper right corner.

The other notes spoke of a bullying incident Kevin experienced in eighth grade. In an interview, Kevin’s parent said he was taunted by another student at Holmen Middle School, resulting in a fight; because the bully threw no punches, they said, only Kevin was punished.

The next day, the family told sheriff’s department investigator Mark Yehle they had spoken to one of Kevin’s female classmates, who said he told her a few days before his suicide he was depressed and was being bullied.

Yehle and another officer interviewed the student, who said kids made fun of Kevin. She identified three students, whose names were redacted, along with descriptions of their interactions with Kevin.

She told the officers students made fun of Kevin’s jean jacket, his watch and his personal hygiene. The report also mentions Twitter in relation to the bullying, but redactions make that section of the report unclear.

That same day, Feb. 18, the officers spoke with Baer, the principal. The three chose not to question students about the incident at the time, deciding the school would investigate the bullying and forward notes to the sheriff’s department.

Baer and Mueller said district staff had spoken with dozens of students about bullying and will speak to more. They declined to comment further about the internal investigation.

Laurie Kessler, one of the high school’s counselors, said that in the wake of Kevin’s suicide hundreds of students have reached out to counselors and staff to talk about their loss and grief, or ask questions. The day after Kevin took his life, Kessler said staff and teachers were ready to offer their support, provide access to resources and give referrals for professional mental health help if needed.

“For some of the students, this is the first time they lost somebody their own age,” Kessler said.

“We were one big district family that just lost one of our family members,” Mueller said. She sent out an email Feb. 25 to families about the loss of a student and ways the district works to create a safe environment.

Both Peter and Connie Romanowski shared their frustrations with the district in an interview Thursday. They said they wished the district had done more to combat bullying and that their goal is to improve the district’s bullying policy and raise community awareness.

Every report of bullying is investigated and documented by the district, Sackett said. Bullying education is a part of the health curriculum, and the high school puts on programming on bullying throughout the year, especially during National Bullying Prevention Month in October.

Along with programs such as Respect Retreats and the Students Envisioning Equality through Diversity Skits group Mueller said the district is looking at more ways for students to report their concerns anonymously, as well as ways to help kids feel more comfortable telling an adult if something is wrong or a friend tells them something is wrong.

As part of conversations with the district, Connie said the family is hoping to help create more avenues for reporting bullying and form an anti-bullying group at the high school that will bring in speakers and work to protect students.

Connie and Peter said students have been speaking up about bullying they see at school and doing a lot to honor Kevin’s memory. Students in the show band wore blue rose tattoos on their arms in honor of Kevin at a competition in Marion, Iowa, last month and students have been wearing blue shirts and denim jackets — his iconic outfit — in remembrance of Kevin.

“These kids have just been outstanding,” Peter said of the students’ response.

But that won’t bring their son back, and Connie said that when she closes her eyes she still sees the scene in the bedroom where she found Kevin’s body. Kevin was kind, gentle and caring, both parents said, a sensitive soul who was picked on because of how much he cared for others.

“I just miss his smile and his hugs,” Connie said. “He was just such a good kid.”