A community in suburban Pittsburgh is grappling with the loss of a 12-year-old boy who committed suicide, his family says, because he was bullied. Evan Ziemniak of North Fayette, Pa., hanged himself on March 23 and was declared dead at a nearby hospital, the New York Daily News reports. Hundreds attended a prayer walk in his honor three days later, and teachers and police officers went to his funeral, but the spotlight has fallen on apparent bullying at West Allegheny Middle School. The suicide "was his response to stop the pain," Evan's grandmother, Debbie Long, tells the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Long says Evan was shoved and stabbed with pencils on the school bus, and others in his family say bullying continued throughout the day. They told the school about it several times, they say, to no effect.
School officials admit they need a better anti-bullying policy, but an optional "Kindness Workshop" for eighth-graders in January triggered a backlash when it left some students in tears, WTAE reported at the time. The workshop had students cover their faces with multicolored masks and answer personal questions by standing in a circle; some questions involved sexual orientation and family problems. "The damage they've done to our kids," said an angry parent. "All they did was give the bullies more ammunition." Now Evan—who loved animals, Minecraft, and collecting old coins and antiques—is forcing his community to face a hard issue. The implications "are far-reaching," says Evan's father, Matt. He and his wife "are prepared to do what is necessary to make sure other parents do not have to face the worst tragedy a parent could ever face." (The family of a bullied teen sued his town when he committed suicide.)