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Teen who killed himself was bullied, students say

Acton high school officials say they were unaware that Jeremiah Lasater, 14, had been the target of taunts.

October 22, 2008|Catherine Saillant and Alexandra Zavis | Saillant and Zavis are Times staff writers.

Tall, awkward and dealing with a learning disability, 14-year-old Jeremiah Lasater was a target of frequent taunts by schoolyard bullies at Vasquez High School in Acton, students said Tuesday.

Even the classroom wasn't always safe for the 6-foot-5 teen, who in middle school was poked and teased by some of his fellow special needs students, according to a former teacher.

Monday was no different. At least two boys threw food at Lasater during lunch, two students said.

Then, as lunch was ending and other students scurried to fifth-period classes, Lasater headed to a boy's bathroom and locked himself inside a stall. He pulled out a weapon and shot himself in the head.

Students, parents and school administrators in the tiny community of Acton on Tuesday were dealing with the shock of the boy's suicide, the first in the high school's 14-year history. Grief counselors spoke with distraught students, and teachers were on high alert for other signs of unrest on the 600-student campus.

But the grief was mixed with dismay because some parents and students said they knew Lasater was being bullied at school, taunts that some insisted school administrators were aware of and ignored.

Lasater didn't fight back, he just took the abuse, said Caleb Neale, 14.

"Everyone picked on him a lot because he was kind of nerdy," said Caleb, sporting a 51, Lasater's number on the school's junior varsity football team.

Michael Daly, one of Lasater's former special education teachers, said the teen had endured teasing and bullying for years.

Daly said he fears the teen finally just had enough.

"He didn't go with a bunch of bullets and try to kill others. He went with one bullet and killed himself," said Daly, who taught Lasater in the eighth grade at the district's High Desert School. "He didn't try to hurt others. He was tired of hurting, himself."

School officials, however, were emphatic that no bullying was ever reported to them. Nor were taunts ever witnessed by Vasquez school staff, Principal Rosemary Oppenheim said.

"I'm on the yard at snack and lunch, and I don't see any of it," she said. "I can't fix what I'm not aware of."

"We are a community and we are all mourning," she added.

Acton-Agua Dulce Unified School District Supt. Stan Halperin said educators interviewed students, staff and the boy's parents after Monday's suicide and found no history of bullying.

"Is there bullying going on everywhere? Yeah," Halperin said. "You probably grew up with bullying too. But we try to deal with it immediately, appropriately and not to have it reoccur."

Halperin said the tragedy came "out of the blue" and that Lasater seemed to be on an upswing at school. He was doing well in his classes and had recently showed significant improvement as an offensive tackle on the school's football team.

"The student had his best game ever on Friday night and was high as a kite," Halperin said.

But Daly and others involved in education in the area said bullying is a significant problem at the high school.

Kari Messner said her 14-year-old son Anthony was also a "big kid" on the Vasquez football team, and like Lasater, was "picked on all the time."

"I have (cellphone) text messages from my son saying, 'Mom, you need to come get me. I'm having a nervous breakdown. These kids are throwing rocks and trash at me,' " she said.

She suggested that he report the matter to his coach, but she said the boy was worried that the entire team would be punished, which would only get him into more trouble with his teammates.

At a candlelight vigil for Lasater on Monday night, Messner said, a couple of students came up to Anthony and apologized for picking on him and his friend. But that was little consolation for her son.

"I didn't send him to school today," she said, choking back tears. "He is still very angry and says it isn't going to change anything. There will always be bullying as long as no one does anything."

Daly said he observed bullying in his class, when children with their own frustration to vent would poke Jeremiah and mutter taunts under their breath.

"Jeremiah, as big as he was, was a good target to pin that frustration on because he was hard to miss," Daly said. "I remember one time when he stood up in class and yelled, 'Leave me alone.' "

When the boy was younger, Daly said, he would occasionally fight back, earning several "on-campus suspensions," when he would be pulled from class and required to work in the school office. But by the time Lasater reached the eighth grade, Daly said, the boy had had enough of getting into fights that only got him into more trouble.

"I was concerned a year ago that he was slipping into the place where kids go quiet," Daly said. "I would rather see kids act out."

Bullying on campus has become the focus of increased attention in recent years. Educators have become concerned about "cyber-bullying," in which students taunt each other with text messages, e-mails and attacks on web pages.

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