Column: Officials Must Find Solutions to Save Teens
Morris prosecutor's findings of violence against Lennon Baldwin show New Jersey's anti-bullying law isn't enough.
The suicide of a child is a tragedy under any circumstance, but it became even more so given the fact that it happened after New Jersey’s enactment of a tough anti-bullying law.
From all accounts, Lennon Baldwin was a pretty typical 15-year old. He played Xbox (Call of Duty) and basketball. He loved cats and watched South Park. He played guitar and drums and bowled a 258 (OK, that’s extraordinary). He was kind and had a great sense of humor. He was the kind of kid any parent would be proud of and any teen would be lucky to be. So much potential and a lifetime of anything’s-possible ahead.
But the criminal investigation into the events surrounding Baldwin’s death seems to indicate that Lennon wasn’t leading the carefree life teens in high school are supposed to enjoy. He was likely living in fear or desperation.
Last week, the Morris County Prosecutor’s office announced the results of its investigation into what Baldwin endured in school and after school in the weeks before his death. According to authorities, he was assaulted at Morristown High School, coerced by his attacker into lying that the assault had been just a joke and then robbed and threatened in a parking lot off school grounds.
Despite the fact that New Jersey put in place six months earlier what many have called the nation’s toughest anti-bullying law, and despite the fact that Morristown High School suspended the juvenile who assaulted Baldwin, he apparently did not feel safe at school.
Parents should, and some do, find that pretty scary.
What’s also scary is that it appears at the moment from all the information released so far—the Morris School District is doing its own investigation—that school officials and police did try to deal with the bullying situation.
According to Morris County Prosecutor Robert Bianchi, Morristown High’s surveillance system recorded the alleged assault and school officials suspended the aggressor two days later, despite Baldwin having told the dean of students that it had been a joke—the youth who allegedly assaulted him put him up to that.
Soon after, the investigation revealed, the aggressor and two others allegedly accosted Baldwin in the Century 21 parking lot. One allegedly stole money and said it was punishment for what had happened at school, the prosecutor's office said.
Although Bianchi did not say so, it would appear Baldwin or someone else informed police because the two juveniles were arrested and sent to the youth detention center for several days.
Law enforcement officials did not discuss cause and effect, but the juveniles were released March 27 and put on house arrest. The next day, Baldwin took his own life.
There has to be a way to get children to understand the devastating effects of bullying and mistreating others and to stop it and treat one another with at least respect.
There has to be a way to get victims to understand they can—must—tell others, including friends and especially adults: parents, counselors, teachers, police.
And there has to be a way to empower adults to truly protect the victims.
There have been mixed feelings about the bullying law. Some parents pooh-pooh it, saying it goes too far. Some school officials complain about being responsible for bullying that happens after school hours, off school property. Others say it won’t stop bullying. Sadly, the latter were right in this case.
At the very least, with the public announcement of the specifics surrounding the case, perhaps it will bring greater support for the anti-bullying law and get school and law enforcement officials to redouble their efforts to make the law as effective as possible.
Bianchi announced a late June bullying symposium in an effort to find and share best practices. That’s a great idea.
Hopefully that, and many other efforts, will be able to draw something positive out of this, figure a way to ensure that others will not suffer so and feel so desperate that they turn to the ultimate out.
Nothing can compensate for the tremendous loss the Baldwin family has endured, but if wise minds can come up with a way to save other youths, perhaps it could give them, and society as a whole, a little peace.
Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.
This column appears on Patch sites serving communities in Morris, Somerset and Sussex counties. Comments below may be by readers of any of those sites.