By Bob Skolnik
The George Washington Middle School community is still reeling after a seventh-grader died by suicide in a locked bathroom stall at the Lyons school last week. On the afternoon of April 17 Johany Juan Bueno of Stickney, known as J.J, a 13-year-old seventh-grader asked to be excused from his English class to go to the bathroom. Apparently worried about an upcoming presentation for class Bueno went into a bathroom stall and critically injured himself with a gun he brought from home. He died later that afternoon at Loyola Hospital.
George Washington Middle School Principal Don Jones said at the parent forum Monday evening attended by a few hundred parents, teachers, and community members that it was a grade issue that upset Bueno whom he did not identify by name. But Jones also said that other factors must have been at play.
"Nobody takes their life over one thing," Jones said.
Bueno left a note but the contents have not been released.
Jones said that Bueno's English teacher, who performed CPR on him, was taking the death of his student extremely hard. Jones said that the bathroom where Bueno injured himself will be closed for the rest of the school year but will reopen next year.
The death was the second by suicide of a GWMS student in less than three months. On Jan. 31 an 11-year-old sixth grade boy from Lyons died by suicide at home.
"Why do 11, 12, 13-year-old boys have access to loaded handguns," Jones asked to applause at the forum.
Stickney Deputy Police Chief Richard Jaczak said that his detective is investigating how Bueno got the gun he used but said his understanding is that the boy took a gun from home that his stepfather legally owned.
"We have spoken with the parents and family members of the decedent and they've been very cooperative so far," Jaczak said adding that his detective is setting up more thorough interviews.
Jones said that neither Bueno nor the sixth-grader had been bullied. "Bullying wasn't an issue with either one of them," Jones said.
Jones also said that neither student displayed the classic signs of depression such as withdrawal from normal activities. "Neither student displayed those signs," Jones said.
Jones said that boys tend to be reluctant to ask for help when they are suffering emotional pain and that is something that must be dealt with. "How do I get my male students to ask for help," Jones said.
Jones encouraged parents to attend a presentation about student stress, anxiety and dealing with loss, which will be delivered on April 25 at 7 p.m. at GWMS by psychologist Robin Choquette. The event was scheduled after the first death in January. Now a gun safety component has been added to the program and free gun locks will be given away.
"Two boys dying of gunshot wounds tells me we have an issue," Jones said.
Some parents have complained that they were never notified about the January death by suicide. "If I underestimated it, I take the blame," Jones said at the forum.
Bueno brought the gun to school in a backpack. His English teacher and another teacher found him in the bathroom stall and did CPR. He left GWMS with a pulse but was pronounced dead at Loyola Medical Center.
Jones had to notify the boy's parents that he had shot himself. "I think that was the hardest conversation I've ever had," said a visibly emotional Jones.
Jones said no student saw Bueno after he injured himself as the school was immediately placed on a soft lockdown.
The day after the death began with an extended advisory period. More than 15 social workers and counselors from other District 103 schools, the LaGrange Area Department of Special Education co-operative, and Riverside Brookfield High School gathered at GWMS to provide additional support to shaken students who wanted to see them and talk about what happened. The specialists from LADSE were also at GWMS on Monday and will be available all week.
Nearly 100 students met with the social workers on Thursday and Monday, Jones said.
Teachers at GWMS, as well as students, were shaken. "This is a difficult thing for everybody," said GWMS seventh-grade science teacher Toni Jackman, who also leads the teachers union in District 103.
Teachers and students supported each other in the aftermath of the tragedy.
"Teachers supported each other," Jackman said of Thursday at GWMS. "The kids were there for each other. The number of kids putting their arms around each other, giving people hugs, we had a lot of hugs going on in the building. In a moment of crisis, I think we showed our mettle. I think we showed each other that we could count on each other. We showed the kids that we are a community, we're a family, and that we're there for all of them and I believe they appreciated that. And by the end of the day I saw some light coming back into the faces of the kids and that was good."
Jones said he stood by the decision to hold school on April 18, the day after Bueno's death, especially since Friday was a school holiday. He said he didn't want kids stewing about the death for four days without the support of their teachers and trained counselors and social workers.
"The best thing is to get back to routine and normalcy," Jones said.
GWMS Assistant Principal Ruby Ortiz encouraged parents to monitor their children's social media accounts and to make it a point to know what is going on in their lives. Ortiz said that she does that with her own 13-year-old daughter. "She doesn't like it; I don't care," Ortiz said. "Look at their social media, know their passwords."
Preventative measures such as installing metal detectors or requiring students to have clear backpacks could be discussed in the future. Jones, who is in his first year as principal at GWMS, said that he has worked in schools that had metal detectors and he would prefer not to have them at GWMS but would defer to the wishes of the community.
"We have to do more and that's what I'm going to do," Jones said.