For Carmita Barros, the past year has been filled with unspeakable grief.
A year ago Sunday, her son David Hernandez Barros took his own life.
David, then a 16-year-old junior at East Hampton High School, hanged himself in the bathroom of the family’s former basement apartment in East Hampton. They immediately moved to a rental house in Springs. Ms. Barros never stepped foot back in the apartment again.
“This month was hard for me. This month was just terrible,” Ms. Barros said in her living room on Tuesday afternoon. She had just gotten off a shift at the Maidstone Market in Springs, where she works six days a week. Over the past year, she has suffered constant bouts of depression. “I don’t like September.”
According to Ms. Barros and her daughter, Gabriella, prior to taking his own life, David had been bullied by six classmates, all of whom were Latino. David was apparently tormented for being gay. Though he had been meeting each week with a social worker and a psychiatrist, the anguish ultimately grew too great.
“David was often pushed on purpose, made inappropriate remarks to, and verbally harassed,” wrote Ms. Barros in a letter to Adam Fine, East Hampton High School’s principal, last fall. In it, she said the students’ conduct created an “intimidating, threatening, and abusive educational environment.”
On the South Fork, since 2009 three Latino students have taken their own lives.
Following David’s death on Sept. 29, 2012, in November of last year Emilio Padilla-Berrezueta, an 18-year-old junior at Southampton High School who was days away from transferring to East Hampton High School, committed suicide. And in December 2009, Tatiana Giraldo-Fajardo, then 17 and a senior at East Hampton, died at home in Montauk.
Taken together, the three suicides have forced school officials and community members to confront the difficulty of ethnic assimilation. Particularly at many South Fork public schools, where the Latino population has risen considerably over the past decade, administrators are hoping to quickly bridge the divide. The hope is to transcend not only cultural differences, but a language barrier as well — and all before another young life is lost.
On the night of Sept. 25, East Hampton High School convened a two-hour evening of healing inside its auditorium. About 40 people, including several school administrators, were in the audience.
Mr. Fine delivered opening remarks, followed by presentations from several people affiliated with the New York State Office of Mental Health and the Family Service League, and Gail Schonfeld, an East Hampton pediatrician, among others. Spanish translation followed. The evening included statistics on the prevalence of suicide, warning signs to watch for, and a host of resources for those at risk.
“I want to applaud East Hampton High School. Many others schools wouldn’t have opened their doors,” said Melanie Puorto-Conte, who directs New York State Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Initiative. “They call us back again and again. The school is open to making this a safe place for students.”
This spring, Ms. Puorto-Conte’s staff conducted numerous workshops for teachers and staff. She considers East Hampton an ideal partner in hoping to build a better safety net.
“We like schools to be proactive and willing to work with us, instead of closing the door and just wanting to make this go away,” she said in a follow-up conversation. “Schools are frightened about this topic.”
East Hampton has taken the reverse stance. “We’ve been an open book about it,” Mr. Fine said. “We simply cannot lose a child again.”
“He’s inspirational. He’s been so welcoming and proactive,” Ms. Puorto-Conte said of Mr. Fine’s leadership. “He’s a template that would be nice to replicate all over the state.”
David’s suicide occurred during the beginning of Mr. Fine’s third year as principal. The past year has been one of admitting defeat and learning how to do his job differently.
“It taught me not only to examine the appearance of what’s going on. No matter what you think is going on or how great you think things are, you need to start stripping away the layers and get to what’s really going on,” Mr. Fine said Monday morning. “Don’t just trust what your first inclination is. For three years, we thought everything was going just great. We didn’t recognize this was such an area of need and have since started reaching out to our Spanish-speaking population.”
In the year since David’s suicide, the school — and the district — has made several changes. Besides implementing a social-climate survey at the high school in February, the district has increased its outreach to the Latino community considerably. Last December, the district hired Ana Nunez, who works as its community liaison, to help improve ties between the school and the Spanish-speaking community.
Next week, for instance, Ms. Nunez will host two separate welcome-back nights at the John M. Marshall Elementary School for Spanish-speaking parents. She will answer questions about the school’s curriculum, paying particular attention to its English as a second language program. Child care will also be provided. It is a service that a year ago simply did not exist.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fine has tried to increase Latino participation at his principal-parent breakfasts and has made an effort to increase outreach in his Google group, an e-mail listserv that routinely goes out to parents.
“It’s a large segment of our population that we need to bring into the fold more,” Mr. Fine said. While the Latino population is around 40 percent, English-language learners constitute around 10 percent. And while he used to be content with 30 parents showing up at his breakfasts, he is now aware of the racial and ethnic breakdown — and of how many parents he has yet to reach. “It’s a big group and they’re my kids, too. It’s changed me.”
Just that morning, a teacher had visited his office, raising possible concerns about a student’s emotional state. “Everybody is hypersensitive now,” Mr. Fine said. “But I’d rather have a hypersensitive school than an insensitive institution that just cares about test scores.”
But despite the inroads, Ms. Barros simply wants her son back.
“It’s very hard for me,” she said. She still can’t bring herself to drive past the high school. “I remember my little boy every day. I remember him every day.”
Besides her 19-year-old daughter, Gabriella, and her 13-month-old granddaughter, Jocelyn, she also cares for her 9-year-old son, Luis, who attends the Springs School. Were it not for her surviving children and grandchild, Ms. Barros does not know how she would make it out of bed most mornings.
Part of her frustration, she said, is that despite repeated requests, the students who bullied David never received adequate punishment. Gabriella still runs into some of them at parties. Ms. Barros has seen them at her workplace.
In August, Ms. Barros and her daughter attended the opening of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Center at the Old Whalers Church in Sag Harbor. One of the community rooms was named in honor of David.
“I was so happy to see that the center has opened and that it might help another kid with the same problems,” said Gabriella, who was the last person to see her brother alive. Over the past month, she can’t help but relive their final hours together. It’s a memory she fears will be with her always.
Gabriella thinks the center might have served as a potential refuge, a place where her brother could finally feel safe. “I’m so happy that room is there and that it’s in my brother’s memory,” she said. Both mother and daughter wiped away tears. “I see him in heaven now, so happy because his dream has finally come true.”