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Pasco Tribune

Parents: Bullying put son through 'pure hell' before suicide try

News Channel 8
Published:   |   Updated: March 18, 2013 at 03:15 PM
ZEPHYRHILLS -

Only Zachery Gray can say what made him try to take his own life a year ago. But brain-damaged and paralyzed from the attempt, Gray can no longer speak.

His parents insist they have the answer.

They're convinced Gray, then 17, walked into a shed behind their home, fashioned a noose from a dog chain, and hanged himself from a rafter because bullies tormented him every day at Zephyrhills High School.

"He couldn't walk down the hallways without somebody saying something toward him," said his father, Tony Gray.

His mother, Lynn "Sissy" Gray, said bullies wrongly branded her son a homosexual and hurled hateful names at him: "Gay Zach, fag, queer, it was nonstop."

The latest incident came just hours before the suicide attempt.

Gray was rescued from that rafter on May 18, 2011, thanks to neighbors, his mother and paramedics. Now, the teenager who aspired to be a traveling nurse requires around-the-clock care at a medical center in Pinellas County.

His injuries raise questions about the role schools play in helping identify and stop bullying. For the past four years, they've been required under Florida law to report bullying incidents and develop plans for ending harassing behavior.

Gray's family and friends said Pasco schools fell short.

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Keylee Harris, who had dated Gray for about five months, said the emotional abuse directed at Gray was no secret.

"I really didn't start paying attention until we started dating in January," said Harris, one of few students who knew Zach was inside the Zephyrhills "Bulldog" costume at sporting events. "And then I started noticing people calling him fag, gay in the commons area — writing notes, treating him bad, just saying things."

The district won't talk about Gray, citing privacy concerns. Nor will it say what training it provides to carry out the state requirements.

But according to an investigation the district conducted after the suicide attempt, Gray complained to teacher Brenda Carlson that other students were making comments about him being "heavy" and calling him "Zach Gay" during a field trip to Jacksonville.

Carlson told the school investigators she asked Gray, "If someone calls you a tree, are you a tree? And if someone calls you gay, does that make you gay?"

Carlson, who no longer works with the district, didn't report the harassment to anyone. After Gray's suicide attempt, she told investigators "she did not have any concerns that Zach was being bullied."

"Her job was to come to me, tell me, go to the principal, go to authorities," said Sissy Gray. "She did nothing."

The Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education is investigating the case, based on a complaint filed by Sissy Gray that Zach and other students at Zephyrhills High "have been subjected to harassment based on gender stereotypes."

A notice sent by the office to Heather Fiorentino, Pasco's schools superintendent, says, "the Complainant further alleged that ZHS staff were aware of harassment of the Student and failed to respond appropriately or otherwise failed to act."

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Authorities also conducted an investigation when, four months before Gray tried to commit suicide, another Pasco student —15-year-old Kiefer Allan of Sunlake High School — fatally shot himself.

Pasco sheriff's Det. Lisa Schoneman said in her report that the school resource officer at Sunlake told her "there had been several students interviewed who supported that Kiefer had been picked on and that everyone assumed he was gay."

Investigators determined that, hours before the suicide, three boys assaulted Allan on a school bus by pinning him down and simulating a rape.

Schoneman also noted Allan had a girlfriend and former girlfriends.

"It's our strong belief that he was bullied by a number of classmates in the ninth grade and it had been going on for many, many months," said attorney David Tirella, who represents Allan's mother, Jane Doucette.

Investigators recommended a simple battery charge when they turned the matter over to the State Attorney's Office. Prosecutors dropped the case.

State education officials say it's not up to them to determine whether Pasco or any of Florida's 67 school districts are following the law on reporting and dealing with bullying.

Data sent from the district to the state Department of Education shows no incidents of bullying last year at Zephyrhills High School or Sunlake High School. Pasco reported only 28 bullying incidents in the entire district, which has 89 schools and 67,000 students.

"At the end of the day it is up to them to report," said Brooks Rumenik who runs the Office of Safe Schools for the Florida Department of Education. "We can't verify whether they're accurate or not."

Still, a memo from the department last November questions the Pasco numbers. Noting that the district reported no safety incidents whatever, including bullying, in half of its schools, the state says this "appears to be very low" compared to other districts.

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A review last July by The Tampa Tribune of reports filed by all of Florida's school districts showed nine had no bullying incidents at all, while at others the numbers were in the thousands.

DOE spokeswoman Cheryl Etters offered one theory to explain Pasco's experience.

"It could be their numbers are low because they're doing a great job keeping their kids safe," Etters said.

Ray Kaplan said he doesn't believe it.

"I have to be honest; I think it's ludicrous," said Kaplan, a sociologist and retired professor at the University of South Florida who spent part of his career teaching tolerance to thousands of students in schools around Tampa Bay.

Kaplan said he brought his tolerance program to Zephyrhills High a number of times.

"I would say the vast majority of bullying is even unknown to the schools," said Kaplan. "Not only at that school, but at every school, it's a widespread phenomenon."

The problem of school bullying has become so widespread there are websites devoted to it and even a new word, "bullycide," to describe kids who commit suicide or kill others because of their victimization.

"It's a very serious issue and it accounts for hundreds of thousands of absentees every day in the United States," Kaplan said. "And misery."

The 2008 Florida law requiring schools to take action against bullying, dubbed "Jeffrey's Law," was spearheaded by Fort Myers teacher Debbie Johnston, whose own son was bullied and committed suicide.

"When you're doing a proper job the number of reports should go sky high," Johnston said.

Attorney Tirella said he worked alongside Johnson in the campaign.

"When it passed, that was my crowning achievement as a lawyer," Tirella said. "We had tears in our eyes."

Now, based on what he's seen in Pasco County, Tirella questions whether Jeffrey's Law is working.

"I'm disillusioned," Tirella said. "Why'd we do all that?"

Zachery Gray's parents wonder, too.

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Tony and Sissy Gray say their questions to the Pasco school district have gone unanswered in the year since their son hung himself.

"They won't take our phone calls," Tony Gray said. "I don't know what they're doing."

Sissy Gray said that as part of the school investigation she forwarded superintendent Fiorentino a list of teachers and students who said they knew her son was being bullied.

"They say it was hell for Zach," Gray said. "Pure hell."

Gray's parents also heard from teachers and staff who said they shielded the teen from school bullies by letting him grade papers in their classrooms and eat his lunch in the school office so he would be safe from harassment.

The investigation report says one teacher contradicted the family's complaints, suggesting Zach was having trouble at home prior to the suicide attempt.

His mother denies that, saying the family had just enjoyed a trip to Disney World together. "Everything was great," she said.

Sissy Gray said the harassment her son suffered at school the day of his suicide attempt was over his bid to join other boys in dressing up as cheerleaders for the annual "Powder Puff" girls' football game.

"Telling him he was too gay and too fat to wear the cheerleading outfits and stuff like that," Sissy Gray said.

Later that day, though, Zach pulled a prank of his own — yanking a chair out from under a teacher. He was placed on suspension. The school resource officer told him he could face arrest and a lawsuit.

His mother drove him home after school and returned to work. He apparently penned a note then hanged himself.

"To all my friends and teachers at ZHS," the note opens.

"Don't take my death and spread rumors about me just know you can't always push someone around. But also please remember me for who i was not what you thought i was."

The note ends, "love always. Zachery Gray. Class of 2012."

His parents use six tanks of gas a week traveling from home to work to Zach's bedside, then home again.

Four days a week, they take him to hyperbaric oxygen therapy sessions at the Chamber of Hope in St. Petersburg in an attempt to reverse some of the brain damage from the asphyxia he suffered in the hanging.

"You can look in his eyes and he'll smile at you," Tony Gray said.

"He can't hug you; he can't say 'I love you.' He'll cry when you leave the room. It's hard."


mdouglas@wfla.com (727) 431-3448

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