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Ethnicity, Class and Suicide Lead a Hamptons School to Reach Out

[preamble]Wrong message sent – schools are not and should not be a substitute for parenting. What are kids doing in an English speakign school and not understanding the language of the coutnry they liv ein? Englis is the language of our country – lets stop trying to be so tolerant of others – learn the language of the country you live in. Its very simple. Parents need to take a proactive approach to their children and stop allowing the government and schools to become the parents alleviating them of their responsibilities. What are these people doing going back to Africa? If i was out of school that long, i would have been suspended or left back – but no we cant be so cruel anymore – we might hurt someones feelings – so what do we do? we set up a committee to discuss this – another waste of money and time.

“Many parents, for example, could not understand the report cards their children brought home because the school used a grading system different from the ones used in their home countries. “In Ecuador, they grade your work from 1 to 20, with 20 being the highest,” Ms. Núñez said. “So, here, if a kid’s doing 60, it seems like, ‘60? That sounds great!’ No, it sounds like you’re failing.”

Are we kidding here? Of course things are different. Ecuador is a drug lord run 3rd world country – how can you compare it to America? The problem is you cannot BUT these people want to use ti as an excuse. Why did you come to America? Why did you put your kids in our schools?: Why did not you learn our language and culture? Why are you not culturally aware of your surrounding and the people that give you the very liberty and freedom you seek?


Three suicides in three years have focused officials at East Hampton High School on the alienation of many immigrant students.
By Published: June 10, 2013

EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — As he walked the East Hampton High School campus on the last day of classes last week, Adam S. Fine seemed to be one satisfied principal. Graduating seniors were moving on to colleges including Brown and Cornell Universities; class-cutting was down; and Newsweek had ranked the school among the 2,000 best public schools in the nation, all to be expected in a ZIP code synonymous with success.

But, asked to reflect on the year that was, he sighed and moved his hand up and down, suggesting a roller coaster. “Resiliency,” he said. “That’s my theme word for graduation.”

This has been a year like none other for East Hampton High, which faced an uncomfortable ethnic integration problem that had been festering in the background for years but was thrust to the foreground by a tragedy at the opening of the school year.

A 16-year-old junior from Ecuador, David Hernandez, hanged himself just a few days after homecoming in September; it was the second student suicide in three years. Two months later, a student who was about to transfer to the school committed suicide. Three suicides in three years in a school community of about 900 students is far above the regional average. And all of the students who killed themselves were Hispanic.

The suicides, taken together, brought to the surface a division between the relatively small and economically comfortable group of Anglo-Saxons for whom the school was founded and newer, poorer Hispanic residents, whose numbers have been rising rapidly. And they made the school district address the problem directly.

The divide, administrators found, was adding to a sense of alienation among some of the more vulnerable immigrant students, many of whom had moved to East Hampton years after their parents had arrived, having to readjust to their mothers and fathers at the same time as they entered a new school, with a new language, in a place that is rarefied even by the standards of the average American student.

“What I said as the building leader and person responsible for everything was, ‘Something’s going on here,’ ” Mr. Fine said in a recent interview. “ ‘We need to take a real hard look.’ ”

The principal, the grieving mother of one of the suicide victims, a local newspaper and a recent graduate of the school who had herself experienced this sense of alienation — and has now returned to help others — all played significant roles in efforts to gain some control of the situation. It is a prime example of how this town of more than 21,000 residents — some of them famous, some of them from families who have been here for generations, and some of them just here in the summer — has sought to deal with huge demographic changes that have come with being a beacon of American attainment.

The Hispanic portion of East Hampton Township’s population nearly doubled between 2000 and 2010, according to census figures, to 26.4 percent from 14.8 percent; it was 5 percent in 1990. Hispanics made up 41 percent of the East Hampton Union Free School District’s student population in 2012, up from 21.7 percent 10 years earlier and 5 percent 10 years before that, according to State Education Department figures.

The district has tried to keep up, with a robust program in English as a second language, three Spanish-speaking social workers and, in the high school, two Spanish-speaking secretaries. Some lessons have been learned by trial and error. For instance, the English-as-a-second language classrooms were once together in a cluster, which one parent of a former student said had been called “Little Mexico” by some; now the classrooms are throughout the building.

“It’s a dramatic demographic change,” said Richard J. Burns, superintendent of the East Hampton school district. “It takes a while; getting your arms around it is difficult.”

But in the months since the most recent suicides, the very life of the school has been altered in ways large and small, in a concerted effort to bring about change more quickly.

And much it had to do with the hiring of someone uniquely qualified to bridge the gap between the school and the parents of its Hispanic students — Ana Núñez, 23, who had endured the travails of being an Ecuadorean student at East Hampton High but who had overcome them, won a scholarship to Columbia University and graduated with a degree in economics and political science.

She was hired by the district a few weeks after David Hernandez’s suicide, which had made it clear that the district needed a liaison who could directly address the rifts between the Spanish-speaking community and the English-speaking school district.

David, 16, had moved to East Hampton from Ecuador three years earlier, to live with his mother, who had left Ecuador for America when he was a toddler. And while it is almost impossible to divine with any certainty the motives in suicides, David was questioning his sexuality, family friends and officials with knowledge of his case said. There were allegations of bullying from fellow Hispanic students, and evidence of previous attempts to kill himself.

His mother, Carmita Barros, gathered with fellow Hispanic parents after the suicide and complained to the local newspaper, The East Hampton Star, that his case had been ignored because he was Hispanic; the school vigorously denied the charge. But the parents also complained that as a group they felt distanced from the school in general.

If that was news to the school district, it was not news to Ms. Núñez, who had been in town around the time of the suicides, staying with her mother — who works at a hotel in Napeague, the narrow stretch of beach between Amagansett and Montauk — as she considered her next move, possibly law school. She had shared her own family’s experience during a visit that fall with a former teacher, Patricia Hope, who was on the school board and had reached out for Ms. Núñez’s reaction.

Ms. Núñez described an “issue that was deeper and broader than I had ever given thought to,” Ms. Hope said. She introduced Ms. Núñez to district officials, who hired her as their community liaison in December.

At the first meeting she called with Hispanic parents, only 18 people showed up. She extracted a promise from them that they would help her build attendance for another one a month later.

At that meeting, in February, about 250 people showed up. As the dialogue began, the school began learning of problems it had not known existed.

Many parents, for example, could not understand the report cards their children brought home because the school used a grading system different from the ones used in their home countries. “In Ecuador, they grade your work from 1 to 20, with 20 being the highest,” Ms. Núñez said. “So, here, if a kid’s doing 60, it seems like, ‘60? That sounds great!’ No, it sounds like you’re failing.”

In one case, the mother of a Hispanic student knew that her daughter was on the high honor roll, “but she never really knew what that meant,” said Robert Tymann, the assistant superintendent, who has worked closely with Ms. Núñez. When the mother was told what it meant, he said, “she started crying.”

It also came as news to the school that it was sending cultural miscues. South American parents were frequently pulling their children out of school in the winter for visits to their home countries. Frustrated teachers would send homework with them, but, Ms. Núñez said, that left the impression with parents that the absences were permissible. Schools in Ecuador, she said, would never be so lax. A committee was formed to address absenteeism.

One mother from Mexico, Adriana Gonzalez, who has a ninth grader in the school, said her son dissuaded her from attending school meetings, telling her they were not important. And when she did go, she said in Spanish, “I didn’t understand anything.”

After being drawn in by Ms. Núñez, she said, she has begun showing up at more meetings, and “loosened my tongue.” She has begun complaining that the school should institute drug testing, something many of the American parents abhor as an invasion of privacy.

Until now, she said, “who would ask a Latino parent her opinion, or cared?” She joked, “Now they want to listen, but maybe later they’re going to say ‘Stop it.’ ”