ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Controversy continued Tuesday at the Waterloo Central School District following an insensitive comment that was allegedly made by a staff member.
Waterloo students tell News 8 that the comment made light of suicide, just months after an area sixth grader took his own life.
Giovanni James Bourne, Gio, was just shy of his 12th birthday when he died by suicide last June.
“This is the most difficult thing I have ever been through … my whole family has ever been through,” said Angelicia Smith, Gio’s mother.
“From the outside in it looks like I’m really brave and I want to just… I want to be very clear: I’m not always brave. I have my moments when I break down and it’s okay to do that. And I want everyone to know that is okay to break down. You don’t have to always look from the exterior, like you’re brave and taking everything with stride,” Smith said while talking about Gio’s story.
Smith said her 11-year-old was an “extremely intelligent” young boy who always talked about space and math. But she said he was also very active and the pandemic was difficult for him.
In late June, around 12:30 in the afternoon, Smith and her daughter found Gio. She said leading up to his death, he had been bullied by kids over social media.
“There was one a few incidences where somebody told him to go kill himself over the phone. During his game, playing his game… the same thing. Just a ton of cyber bullying that was going on, you know, so unfortunately, it wasn’t in the actual school, but still with school students,” Smith said.
Since Gio’s death, some students and parents say not enough has been done by the school district to address bullying. Just last week, a staff member was criticized for allegedly making insensitive comments regarding suicide.
Smith said her daughter called her to tell her.
“She called me very upset, telling me that a teacher was making a quote unquote, ‘joke.’ That if you’re feeling suicidal… just eat a cookie and everything will be OK,” Smith said. “My heart dropped. I had to pull my car over and kind of deal with the feelings that I was feeling at the moment.”
Smith went to high school to pick up her daughter and she recorded her interaction over Facebook live. The video ended up going viral.
Following the video and the alleged comment that was made by a staff member, hundreds of parents and students protested outside of the high school Friday. They demanded the district does more and called on the staff member to resign.
Senior student Colby Tears was one of the students who planned the gathering.
“We need change in our schools, jokes like suicide shouldn’t be even accepted in school… there shouldn’t even be any jokes about suicide,” Tears said. “We wanted our message to come across. We made sure that when we met in the morning we told everyone to remain peaceful, that we weren’t doing this just for ourselves. We were doing this for everyone like Gio, that the bullying needs to stop.”
Then on Monday, Tears said he and about 30 other students held an in-school, silent protest.
“We sat in the main lobby, right in front of the school, and we all just huddled. We stayed together, we linked arms. Right after the morning announcements, the principal, Miss. Madonna, came out and basically told us that she likes that we were doing a sit-in, but that it wasn’t the time or place to do it. That if she wanted if we wanted to do a sit-in, that we could do one during lunch,” Smith said.
“We all looked around each other and we just looked back at her and we stayed silent. We sat there. She told us that if we continue to stay there and we didn’t go to class, that she would start calling parents and that we would get suspended. Again, we all looked at each other and we all agreed, most of us agreed, on that we were OK with being suspended,” he said.
Tears said he and many other students were suspended because of this protest. Tears was suspended for five days, but he still doesn’t plan on backing down.
“We are going to demand change. And we’re going to continue until change has been brought about,” Tears said.
Parents of students were also suspended from district grounds following Friday’s protest. Smith said she can’t go back to the school until June, which is difficult because she has a daughter still attending class there.
According to a note on Waterloo Central School District’s website, parents have been suspended because the protest got out of hand:
“Friday’s protest caused a significant disruption to school activities and cannot recur,” the district note said. “The protest went on for several hours and caused substantial fear to the school community. Students shouted obscenities at the administrators who were outside supervising them. Students marched around the high school and middle school campus pounding on windows and shouting, causing a substantial disruption to the instruction that was going on in the building. Students inside the school who were not protesting outside or who came inside because they were made to feel uncomfortable with the tone the protest took, shared with teachers they were being berated and bullied by the student protestors outside of school. Many of these students expressed concern about returning to school on Monday to face these classmates.”
However, Smith and Tears both say the protest was peaceful.
“I do believe that there was an isolated incident and that person was told to stop and they did immediately. You’re always going to have someone in the crowd that’s not going to follow what they’re supposed to do. That’s normal. That’s normal behavior, but to take one person and claim that it was everyone, that’s just a lie,” Smith said.
After seeing what many students have done to honor Gio, Smith says she is proud. However, she also said that this shows her son is not the only one who is experiencing forms of bullying.
“I don’t blame the school completely. However, I do blame the school for not taking accountability for their part in the bullying. My daughter was bullied, my son was bullied, my nephew was bullied,” Smith said.
“They say that you’re you’re bigger in numbers, right? You’re more important in numbers? Well, we have a really large number of people saying the same thing. I would think that they would look inside themselves and say, okay, we must be the problem, we probably should start changing things, and accepting that we made some mistakes, and mistakes are okay, as long as you’re willing to fix them.”
The Waterloo Central School District did not return a request for comment on Wednesday about the suspended students. But on Monday the district released this statement:
“Although Waterloo Central School District unwaveringly supports rights to free speech, the exercise of such rights cannot infringe on the rights of others, disrupt the instructional day, be insubordinate or otherwise violate the District’s Code of Conduct. Moving forward, should such an incident recur, the District will have no choice but to enforce its Code of Conduct and take disciplinary action against participating students.”
The district has “limited access” to the school for adults who violated its code of conduct during the protest. They will be allowed on school property for “legitimate purposes” as long as they provide written confirmation they will follow the code of conduct.
Note from the Waterloo Central School District, September 18
We recognize that the protest on Friday reflected the community’s pain and emotions are high. As educators, we now speak to the conduct we witnessed and explain the ways we have adapted to support all families over the past five years and moving forward.
On Friday, September 17th, a small group of adults and some students participated in a protest on school grounds during school hours regarding issues related to student suicide and an alleged insensitive statement by a staff member. Friday’s protest caused a significant disruption to school activities and cannot recur. The protest went on for several hours and caused substantial fear to the school community. Students shouted obscenities at the administrators who were outside supervising them. Students marched around the high school and middle school campus pounding on windows and shouting, causing a substantial disruption to the instruction that was going on in the building. Students inside the school who were not protesting outside or who came inside because they were made to feel uncomfortable with the tone the protest took, shared with teachers they were being berated and bullied by the student protestors outside of school. Many of these students expressed concern about returning to school on Monday to face these classmates.
There were no incidents of bullying reported to any staff at Waterloo Middle School related to any organizer’s child. Had such concerns been brought to the District’s attention, it would have followed its Dignity for All Students Act policy, as well as Education Law requirements. The District takes seriously issues surrounding mental health, bullying and suicide, and strives to provide a safe and healthy environment for students to learn. We welcome a meaningful and productive dialogue toward the goal of moving the District forward in a positive direction.
Over the past five years to support the whole child and help students deal with the societal issues they face every day, including peer interactions, poverty, mental health and drug abuse, the Waterloo Central School District has:
• added several Seneca County Mental Health Counselors to its staff in addition to two full time Social Worker
• updated curriculum in Health classes and added a 6th grade class in Health
• reinstated an advisory period at the secondary level to connect students and staff with each other for support
• added the Second Step Program in Grades K-8 and the PBIS program district wide
• hired an additional School Nurse, Director of Social Emotional Learning Coordination, and a Restorative Justice/Academic Dean Teacher on Special Assignment, District Wellness Coordinator and Building Wellness Coordinators for each school in the district
• participated in Year 2 of 3 of the Improving School Culture and Climate grant with Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES focused on Social Emotional Learning, Mental Health First Aid, and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support
• trained staff in Second Step, PBIS, Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI), Teen Mental Health First Aid and Youth Mental Health First Aid
• trained teams of staff from every building in Trauma Illness and Grief (TIG) to create TIG teams in each building and the district level to respond to any incidents of trauma, illness, or grief
• created a district wide TIG response manual for all building teams to use during TIG events
• added after school programming and increased extra-curricular activities and electives at the secondary level in all areas to engage students
• expanded hands on and technology programming available to students through Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES, including the New Visions and P-TECH Programs
• expanded its UPK Program to a full day program with transportation for four-year old students
• provided wrap around extended school day programming free of charge to all students in both
• provided a free breakfast and lunch to every child who needs it
• participated in the Food-link Trevor’s Gift Backpack program run by community volunteers every week, delivering food to families with food instability so they have food on the weekends to feed their school-aged children
• supported students in the creation of Bailey’s Boutique last spring, which provides students free of charge clothing, shoes, coats, toiletries, school supplies, school spirit wear, food, personal hygiene items and many other items donated by the Waterloo community
Although Waterloo Central School District unwaveringly supports rights to free speech, the exercise of such rights cannot infringe on the rights of others, disrupt the instructional day, be insubordinate or otherwise violate the District’s Code of Conduct.
Moving forward, should such an incident recur, the District will have no choice but to enforce its Code of Conduct and take disciplinary action against participating students. The District has also temporarily limited access to adults who have violated its Code of Conduct. While the District has no interest in restricting community member or parent access to its property, it is obligated by law to maintain and uphold its Code of Conduct and keep students safe. Adults whose access has been limited due to the September 17th incident will be permitted to access school property for legitimate purposes moving forward upon written confirmation that they will comply with the District’s Code of Conduct. Student safety and well-being is the District’s priority.