ALTOONA, Pa. (WTAJ) — “I dwell on it every day,” says Marc Lansberry. “Every day I wake up is a day I wake up and it’s the first day I lost him.”
May 18th, 2017 is a day Marc relives, every day.
“When I went upstairs, is when I found him, and I seen the note and stuff, and the rest is pretty much, I blanked it out,” he says.
At just 12-years-old his son, Wyatt Lansberry, died by suicide.
“That day just keeps…you just relive that day all the time,” says Marc’s wife and Wyatt’s stepmother, Danielle Lansberry.
“Now I get little flashbacks, and thinking could I have done this? If I would have come home earlier. If I would have done that…If the school would have contacted me,” says Marc.
Marc and Danielle quickly found out Wyatt was bullied in school.
“We had no clue that he was having these issues,” says Marc.
The next year, Marc sued the Altoona School District.
A judge found that Wyatt was, in fact, bullied through social media and at the Altoona Junior High School and the district “failed to adequately respond” but dismissed the lawsuit, determining that Wyatt’s “Constitutional Rights were not violated” by policies or actions by the district.
“You know, we’re not perfect, there’s no question, we’re not perfect. And there are people that would be more than glad to tell you we didn’t handle this right, didn’t handle that right. But we’re doing everything we possibly can to ensure that we get it right,” said Altoona Area School District Superintendent Dr. Charles Prijatelj.
He would not talk specifically about the lawsuit but makes it clear, changes have been made. The district’s bullying and cyberbullying policy has been updated.
“Every year it’s reviewed, every year it’s board approved again, it’s updated,” says Dr. Prijatelj.
It was last revised in April of 2019.
“Laws need to change,” says Marc. He wants more to be done. “The schools need to be held more accountable, the parents need to be held more accountable.”
“We need to effectively track bullying and report bullying,” says Pennsylvania Representative Frank Burns.
Rep. Burns has introduced House Bill 1936, which holds parents and schools accountable for bullying.
“Everybody is informed, ever step of the way,” says Rep. Burns.
The bill requires that once an incident is reported, all involved parents are notified of the situation and action taken by the school.
“A parent deserves to know if their son or daughter is being bullied,” says Rep. Burns. “They deserve to know each time it happens.”
If it happens again, parents must come to the school for a parental class on bullying or develop a plan on what the student, parents, and school will do to prevent bullying.
If a child bullies three or more times, the parents face a fine of up to $750 or community service.
“My hope and the goal of this is not to fine parents, the goal is to get parents involved in their child’s education,” says Burns. “Get parents involved in with what’s going on with their child.”
Schools will also be required to report bullying to the department of education each month.
“We’ve had 43 reports of bullying, only 11 of them has been found as actual occasions where bullying occurring,” says Penn Cambria School District Superintendent Bill Marshall.
The Penn Cambria School District is partnering with Representative Burns on a pilot program to track, analyze, and report bullying.
“We had two reports on the first day of school, so it was being used immediately,” explains Marshall.
Through the program, the district is using a Johnstown-based software called HIBster.
During the pilot program period, the software for free for Penn Cambria. HIBster says they charge school districts $1 per student per year. Right now, about 1700 schools in New Jersey use the software. In Pennsylvania, HIBster is used by a school district in Erie and the Philadelphia School District.
Burns says schools can use any tool to comply with his legislation.
Marshall says that after six months, the data is making a difference.
“Now we know where it’s happening, when it’s happening, who may be involved and it crosses buildings so my high school administration already has an idea of what may be an issue prior to the start of the 2021 school year,” says Marshall.
It also helped the school district identify areas where new security cameras should be located.
“The data’s told us that in our unstructured areas, cafeterias, hallways, stairwells, we needed to improve supervision in specific times,” says Marshall.
Still, even with the ability to track bullying Marshall says one issue remains.
“Biggest struggle number one is the definition. It is, what is bullying?” explains Marshall. “What the students think bullying is, what do parents think bullying is?”
“Unfortunately, bullying has become chronic in nature and has hit a crisis point,” says Pennsylvania Representative Kyle Mullins.
Rep. Mullins is co-sponsoring House Bill 2053 which would define bullying and make it prosecutable.
“When they have these cases of severe and chronic bullying, the Crimes Code of Pennsylvania doesn’t have an adequate statute for them to follow,” explains Rep. Mullins.
The bill will make bullying a criminal offense and give it a clear definition: The intent to place an individual or group in fear of personal injury or property damage; or the intent to harass, annoy or alarm an individual or group.
“Law enforcement brought it to me saying they needed an additional tool in their tool chest to prosecute the most severe and chronic cases but, it’s, I believe it to be a mental health matter, a school safety matter,” says Rep. Mullins.
For now, Pennsylvania mandates all schools to participate in the Safe 2 Say Something program. It’s an anonymous tip line to report safety concerns.
From January to June of 2019, the tipline received more than 23,000.
Just over 3,500 of them were for reported bullying and about 2,100of them reported suicide or suicide ideation.
But schools are taking action in different ways.
Windber School District offers licensed mental health counselors.
“This is a case where we need to get the root of the problems and help and take away the stigmas that are associated with mental health,” says Windber School District Superintendent Joe Kimmel.
“That student can leave class, come and have therapy, and return to class so they’re not missing more academic time than necessary,” says Julia Dello, a Licensed Professional Counselor for the Windber School District.
Penn Cambria established their “Panther Pledge Against Bullying” two years ago.
“I really do believe we’ve seen a change in the attitudes of the students and parents and they understand that we have to protect each other,” says Superintendent Marshall.
And the Altoona Area School District is tackling cyberbullying with a program called Gaggle that monitors student’s interactions online and flags keywords.
There are also tip boxes around the school and organizations for students to get involved with that promote kindness and compassion.
“The key is we have to create a climate and culture that’s supportive of children. And teaching kids good socials skills and good interaction skills,” says Superintendent Dr. Prijatelj.
Outside of school, Ron Heller, a former police chief, and current Logan Township Supervisor teaches kids how to handle bullies at Altoona Tang Soo Do.
“I’m passionate about kids today, defending themselves,” and when it comes to bullying, “It’s out of control,” says Heller. “It needs to be addressed. It’s worse than I’ve ever seen it.”
However, Heller explains to his students that violence is not the answer and encourages them to intervene when they see someone bullying another person.
“Talk to them, walk away if you can, but if it becomes physical, you have to defend yourself,” says Heller.
Marc and Danielle are taking action too.
“I wasn’t usually a big people person but since it happened I feel like I have to go out and help other kids,” says Marc. “I’m not letting him be forgotten.”
They’re heavily involved with the Report a Bully Hotline, sharing Wyatt’s story, and fulfilling what they believe was Wyatt’s last wish.
“He took his own life, to save other lives is the way he portrayed it,” explains Marc.
Wyatt had big dreams of being a Marine and serve the country.
He’ll never get to accomplish those dreams so Marc is making it his mission to ensure other kids will live out theirs.
“The only thing I can really do is hopefully make a difference,” says Marc. “If I save one or two people, I mean that’s, well worth [it], I could die tomorrow be like, “Hey I made a difference, I saved another family.”
And to make sure Wyatt will be remembered through his very own words that are forever engraved, at his final resting place.
It reads, in part: “I am Wyatt because I am caring, kind, I am all eyes forward for the marines. I am this way because I help others if I can ever do it.”
It is important to note that Wyatt told friends about his ideation of suicide. If a friend ever expresses thoughts of suicide, there are resources available to help.
You can get more information on how to prevent suicide, HERE. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
Report A Bully Hotline is an Altoona-based organization that is available 27/4. The hotline number is 1-888-405-9588. Marc has donations jars in local businesses for Report A Bully Hotline with hopes of raising enough money to buy advertising on a billboard and with a picture of Wyatt.