YATESVILLE – It was far from normal at Pittston Area High School on Tuesday. A slow but steady stream of parents took students home, one of them in tears.
A sophomore cheerleader with a 3.5 grade-point average had taken her life, Superintendent Michael Garzella confirmed. It was the second suicide of a district student in three days and, with the death Tuesday of a 13-year-old Hazleton-area boy, the fourth teen suicide in Luzerne County in one week.
Garzella said he received a call about the latest suicide in his district around 9:30 Monday night after the student had been flown by helicopter to a regional trauma center, where she died.
Despite allegations that chronic bullying may have prompted at least some of the suicides, Garzella said there is no hard evidence that was the case.
He said numerous interviews with students Monday about a suicide over the weekend resulted in multiple claims of bullying, but when questioned further, the allegations were hearsay, not first-person observations.
He also said there is no apparent connection between the weekend suicide and the one Monday evening.
Luzerne County District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis met with detectives, area police chiefs and Garzella and other Pittston Area administrators Tuesday, and she emerged from the meeting with the same conclusion.
"The rumors of possible bullying are exactly that, rumors. We have no evidence of that," Salavantis said. "However, we ask if anyone has evidence, please come forward."
The tragedies sparked a flurry of activity:
• Pittston Area set up a public forum for 7 p.m. today with a panel of experts to discuss teen suicide and bullying. Garzella said his hope is to provide information on how to detect possible problems and what to do or whom to contact. No school district officials will be on the panel, he added.
• Counselors who had been brought in Monday to help students cope with the weekend suicide will be kept on throughout the week, Garzella said. Counselors were also made available at the intermediate center, which houses grades three through five, and the middle school, with grades six through eight. "We sent them to the intermediate center because we've received calls from concerned parents," Garzella said.
• The high school experienced a slow but steady exodus of students leaving with their parents most of Tuesday. Garzella said the district is encouraging parents to leave the children in school. "We believe it is the best place for them right now," he said. But if parents insist, he said the district recommends they come to the school and drive the student home, rather than letting the student drive alone.
• A candlelight vigil has been scheduled for 7:30 p.m. today by anti-bullying activists at Albert West Park, Swallow Street, in Pittston.
• Garzella is looking to update the district's anti-bullying efforts, and talked with Hazleton Area Superintendent Francis Antonelli about an extensive program being implemented there, including anti-harassment and anti-bullying curriculum taught in every grade by all teachers, and mandatory training for all employees on detecting harassment and bullying, and remedying it to the satisfaction of victim and perpetrator.
• Garzella said he wants to implement a system that would allow students or others to report bullying confidentially, possibly including an online anonymous report form.
Garzella said that, along with good grades and participation in cheerleading, the girl who committed suicide Monday night had "a family that was involved. She did not fit the profile."
Salavantis said the Monday evening suicide happened in the Avoca area, but she said Tuesday afternoon she could not release details at that point.
Garzella stressed the need for cooperation among students, parents and law enforcement officials in preventing bullying and suicides.
He noted the district has a Student Assistance Program in place that provides a team of professionals with appropriate expertise to students who may be struggling with such issues, but the team can only be called in if students speak up.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we don't have a bullying problem," Garzella said. "I think we do. I think all school districts do.
"We can look for the signs, but the reality is it has to be reported."