It’s been a rough couple of years for the Lansing Central School District and this school year is no different. Just a few days into his first year of college after graduating from LCSD, Will Czymmek died by suicide the day before he turned 18. Will’s death has since sparked a larger community conversation around bullying, mental health, and how the community and school can work together to make everyone feel heard.
At Will’s funeral, his mother Anne spoke of some of the issues that her son had been going through, including what she considers to be bullying at Lansing High School and in the school’s athletic department. Other parents recognized some of the same concerns that Anne did and as the conversation around LCSD and bullying grew, many parents connected with each other over similar grievances: they did not believe the school had listened to their concerns or reacted accordingly, they were unsure of the avenues available to them to report the complaints that their students had, and they wanted the district to answer their questions publicly.
“I think the hopeful piece is, unfortunately, it’s taken this to make other people come forward and come together as a group,” Anne Czymmek said. “People just didn’t know that other kids were experiencing this much.”
While neither Anne nor Will’s father, Karl Czymmek, blame the school for their son’s death, they wish that things at the school had been different. They never went to the school about Will’s bullying because Will did not feel comfortable with that idea, he was sure it would just make things worse.
“I wish the administration would have provided an atmosphere that would have made Will more comfortable – and, in fact, us – more comfortable reaching out to them,” Karl said.
What’s happening nowSince the community began to demand answers and clarity from the district, LCSD has taken a number of steps to better address concerns. Task forces made up of faculty, staff, students, and community members have been created for each building and are working on setting up concrete actions while aiming for one goal: improving the school climate and culture. A survey sent to around 550 students in the middle school and high school took a temperature of the student body as it relates to issues of respect, knowing who to go to with issues, and feeling comfortable going to those people.
For superintendent Chris Pettograsso, one of the surprising findings of the survey had to do with student’s feeling uncomfortable telling an adult that they are being bullied. While 59 percent of high school students agreed that they would tell a teacher, 40 percent disagreed. In the middle school, while 67 percent agreed that they would tell, 32 percent disagreed. Pettograsso sees this as an opportunity to help students become more comfortable speaking with adults.
“So, one of our goals is to make sure that every student has somebody they can go to, that they know, and that we know who they are, and that there’s awareness,” Pettograsso said. “But that’s why we’re so focused on the competencies, or the skills, for the students to be able to persevere, and to have a little bit of grit or resilience behind them to persevere situations that they are seeming to struggle with more and more that may not be as significant as you would think.”
Because of state laws that protect student’s identities and records, often Pettograsso and other members of the administration are not at liberty to discuss disciplinary measures that might have been taken against students. This can be frustrating for parents who go to the school with complaints about the behavior of other students. Bullying, unlike a student just being mean, must reach a certain level of seriousness, Pettograsso said. One of the goals that she has for the school and the community is to create a shared common knowledge of what constitutes bullying, what the policies and practices of the school are when it comes to bullying, and what resources are available to deal with the issue.
But this shared common knowledge won’t just be useful for parents and students. A special task force was set up within the athletic department of the district following the public concerns of parents, like Anne and Karl. While still attending Lansing High School, Will had been a part of the soccer team, but he quit in part because of negative experiences with some of the other players, and what Anne described as lack of action on the part of the coaches. Ideally, Anne would like the coaches to know what bullying looks like, and to be able to respond accordingly. She is skeptical of the school’s approach because of her son’s experience. Both Anne and Karl believe that, to an extent, Will’s experience in athletics had a significant impact on his mental and emotional state.
While Pettograsso and the administration want students to be a big part of the solution, and a large part of the message going forward will be about how students treat each other, Anne doesn’t want students to take on too much of the burden. Life for kids is hard enough.
In the months after Will’s death, Karl came together with many other student parents to talk about their concerns. He likes that the school has created the task forces, but he wants to know more about how policies will be enforced and isn’t convinced that training will be enough. What he’s learned since his son’s death is that bullying, and addressing it, is not a problem unique to Lansing.
“I have some concerns that the self-reporting system, surprise-surprise, maybe doesn’t do the best job of encouraging schools to truly come out and address things,” Karl said of the ways that schools must report bullying issues. “This is a much broader issue, and one that I’m interested in helping find ways that communities and schools to deal with in a mature and productive way.”
Karl “Will” Czymmek
“Will was a bright and capable young man, and really independent-minded, and very intuitive and I guess as we’ve been learning more over the past few months, very sensitive,” Karl said of his son. “He enjoyed hunting, he really loved riding his motorcycle, he spent a lot of time working out in the gym, especially the last few years as he tried to manage his depression.”
Will had decided to go to the University of Buffalo, where one of his sisters was also a student, to study nursing with the hope of becoming a nurse anesthetist. He was drawn to health and medicine, Karl said, in part because it was a portable career that could take him out of the area. His senior year at Lansing High School Will was part of a program called New Visions, which gave him hands-on experience at Cayuga Medical Center. Both his parents agree that he was generally reserved and didn’t like to talk about himself a lot. Like any 17-year-old boy, Will often exasperated his parents and could act impulsively. Anne remembers her son as a stubborn but gentle kid. She wants other parents, and anyone who deals with people struggling with mental illness, to know that they can and should ask the hard questions if they suspect someone is having thoughts of suicide.
They would like Will to be remembered as a kind, caring, intelligent, complicated, and imperfect boy who treated others well.
What to do if you are having thoughts of suicide
Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services is a local organization working to help people in crisis. Their 24/7 hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. Trained volunteers are available at any time to help if you are having thoughts of suicide or just need to talk to someone about your emotional state. If you would prefer to talk over text message, text GOT5 to 741741 for the crisis text line. The hotline can also be a resource for people who want to help their friends, family, or patients who may be having thoughts of suicide.
What to do if you are being bullied
Students who are being bullied, or anyone who suspects of or knows of instances of bullying, can fill out a Dignity for All Student’s Act (DASA) form with their school administration. When a DASA form is filled out the incident will be investigated by the appropriate parties and if the incident reported is deemed to be bullying a variety of actions could be taken depending on the severity of the incident. Contact your school administration to find out what other resources may be available in your district.
Tragic loss. Beautiful young man.
Had his whole life ahead of him...
Bullying? In the LHS athletic department? You don't say?!? As an alum. of the district myself (02-06' represent), I can say this is, unfortunatly, some old news. I dreaded gym class. Rather than working to address the bullying, the gym teachers and coaches would often join in and/or initiate it themselves. It definitely affected my mental health at the time, and I was even a relatively fit and active kid. It was way worse for the fat kids, or god forbid if you were a minority!! Openly racist jokes, picking on kids' body types, laughing at they way they ran, you name it. I believe the primary teachers/administrators responsible for that behavior during my time are long since retired or have left the district, but I'm not surprised to hear the culture remains. Pretty sad that someone had to die before anyone did anything about it. Ask anyone who went through LHS in the late 90's or 2000's and they'd tell you the exact same thing, and probably drop that same 2 names that are on my mind right now as to who was responsible. RIP kid.
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