Just a week after 16-year-old East Hampton high school student David Hernandez Barros died, a forum has been scheduled to discuss the issues of homosexuality and bullying that have been raised since his sudden death.
The Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth announced Tuesday that it will host a meeting at East Hampton High School on Oct. 22 at 6 p.m.
"We have been working closely with East Hampton school administration and officials since this tragedy to ensure that support is available for the healing that needs to take place, and to create a plan to move forward in ensuring no other teen, GLBT or heterosexual, feels the need to take their own life," said David Kilmnick, the chief executive officer of the network.
"We heard about the suicide very early on," Kilmnick said, noting that his organization has been working with the East Hampton School District for 17 out of the 19 years its been around, including to help set up a Gay Straight Alliance club for students in the high school and middle school.
Police never confirmed the high school junior's cause of death, on Sept. 29, was a suicide, but it was widely speculated.
Hernandez attended a Gay Straight Alliance meeting at the high school in the days before his death, Kilmnick said.
"We don't know if David was gay — We've heard things from people that he felt bullied for being gay or for being perceived as gay," he said. "It really shouldn't matter at this point."
Kilmnick said that nationally 90-percent of gay teens feel bullied to some degree. Gay teens are also three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.
The organization suggested having a community forum. "We got calls from folks who said, 'It's the school's fault,'" Kilmnick said referring to the bullying rumors — which he neither confirmed nor denied. "Unfortunately, bullying is an epidemic — just like teen suicides — unless we're able to walk the halls holding the hand of every student in the school, we're not going to stop it."
He singled East Hampton School District as being proactive, such as holding sensitivity workshops, and standing out amongst other districts on the East End. There are "less than a handful" of gay straight alliance clubs in middle schools, he said.
Kilmnick said an invitation has not been made yet to Hernandez's family, though the entire community is invited. "They are grieving right now and we want to make sure they have the proper time to do so and also ensure that the attention is placed where it needs to be for this forum – on a solution moving forward for the community," he said.
While Hernandez's death will be addressed at the meeting (certified social workers from the LIGALY staff will be on hand), the organization also hopes to begin a dialogue about the need for a LGTB community center on the South Fork. "We thought it was time to bring together the community for a meeting to talk about what we hear from many kids and families who tell us there’s no place for them to go after school," he said.
The LIGALY network runs two community centers, one in Bay Shore and one that opened up one year ago in Garden City. The centers provide programs and services, such as support groups, youth leadership, anti-bullying campaigns and initiatives, and also provide teens a place where they can "just come down and be a kid," he said. Fifteen to 20 percent of teens that go to the centers are not homosexual, he said.
At the end of the 2011-12 school year, the network received several emails from Southampton and Westhampton Beach high school students asking for one that is accessible to them, he said.
The organization is looking for a space, though money is tight and real estate on the South Fork is expensive. Kilmnick said they are considering the Southampton and Sag Harbor areas.
"There are things we'll never know because he's not with us anymore," Kilmnick said of Hernandez. "We need to respect and honor his life ... and we should be able to learn from this so that no teenager will feel like they have to take their life."
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also visit The Trevor Project's website, a national organization providing support to LGBT youth, or call them at 1-866-488-7386. And if you're worried about a friend on Facebook, you can report troubling posts. They'll connect your friend with a representative from National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.