I am Paul Foley, father of Erin Foley, the Watertown High School student who took her own life on May 14, a day I will never forget. On Fathers Day, I decided to write a response to the Special Commentary in the Watertown Times on June 12, Students suicide: bullying not evident, written by a Watertown High School student. While I agree that Watertown High School is an excellent school, not all students find it a carefree experience.
First, Id like to dispel a popular myth about suicides. Only one in six people who commit suicide leave notes. This leaves those of us left behind to question what we missed that could have prevented it. Teenage depression has many causes, and bullying and harassment are major ones and should not be so casually dismissed. Erin was not someone to complain to others but as a self-conscious, shy young woman trying to fit in, words and laughter are more damaging than fists.
Though Erin did not leave a written note, she did, however, leave signs that indicated trouble at school being the cause of her pain. We found her backpack cleaned out, and all of her schoolwork in our pile of papers that we use for our wood stove.
Bullying and harassment are a lot more common than many people want to admit. There was a front-page story in USA Today on June 13 about bullies. In it, there was a recent survey of high school students conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office that said 28 percent of students reported being bullied at school. Some 19 percent were made fun of, called names or insulted; 17 percent were the subject of rumors; 6 percent were cyber bullied; and 9 percent were pushed, shoved, tripped or spat on (the traditional bully behavior).
In hindsight, I can see the signs I wished Id followed up on instead of leaving it at Im fine. In elementary and middle school Erin was active and outgoing, but in high school I could see her becoming more withdrawn.
At home she was still active and loved swimming, hiking and kayaking. Why, then, did she feel so self-conscious that she seemed to miss the bus just so she could skip gym, especially on swimming or physical testing days? That teasing and laughter over physical appearance and performance are a major source of pain to many of your fellow classmates. We dont have a special-needs student read in front of the class, yet think nothing of asking a self-conscious adolescent to display their insecurities in front of the entire gym class.
Do you wonder why some go home in tears and look for ways to skip? I have to wonder why she needed to wear the right clothes and deleted her Facebook account. (She used to love it and had so much fun with Farmville and the other games, but she never did explain to us why she quit.)
So no, Erin was private and didnt like to complain, so we cannot say for certain bullying was the reason for her suicide. But there are enough signs to indicate that harassment of some sort could have been a factor. I do know for certain that it is a reason for some attempted suicides of teenagers in this area.
Perhaps it may be difficult for some of the in crowd to empathize with what other students experience at school. If you took the time to visit those social networking sites, you may be surprised at how many of those students out sunning themselves have their own stories of bullying, and have contemplated and even attempted suicides.
Fortunately there are those who go to school in Watertown who do recognize the problem. They have been working on this even before Erin and were out there in support of her and the countless others. The group To Write Love On Her Arm is a national group that has been trying to prevent tragedies like this. Just go to www.twloha.com and find out. These students have been trying to get a club started in the Watertown school for the last year but were denied until Erins death.
So yes, I do believe Watertown High School is an excellent school; but it isnt because there is no problem, it is because of the students who see a problem and actively try to do something about it. I would also like to mention there is a new law that takes effect on July 1 named The Dignity for All Students Act. This is a further attempt to provide a school environment free from discrimination and harassment. It will force school districts to become more accountable for harassment and bullying, even the ones that are reluctant to admit it.