We will never know the truth
When the Review reported on the heartbreaking passing of William Smeltz, a Lake Oswego High School student with intense spirit and life, readers had mixed feelings. Mine revolved around three matters.
First, the Review revealed his passing was from attempted suicide - not even alleged. I say alleged because only William knew if it was from risky behavior, an accident or intent. Differences of opinion still exist as to fact. Only the family has the complete picture. At William's memorial service the priest stressed how we will never know the facts or motivation. As a parent of teen-agers, I make it my business to be keenly aware of risky behavior, such as 'blackout rush,' which many teens don't survive. When, after William's loss, a Lake Oswego 13 year old showed his mom how to get a blackout rush with a seatbelt, she was shocked. Alleged leaves open the possibility of error as to intent, or panic playing some role. The Review while doing due diligence to report the facts, didn't allow for the slightest doubt which 'alleging' would have offered.
Second that Lake Oswego High School administration wasn't at William's Memorial was incredulous - Gately Academy's was. How sad is that when the loss of a child is the greatest loss of all? Perceptions are reality and those present didn't understand how William mattered any less in death than life. In grief, families need to see active school leadership support, solicited or not. The only teacher I saw was William's younger brother's former teacher who was in tears.
William, kids later reported, had been bullied the week prior at LOHS. This was reminiscent of his Forest Hills experience where kids shunned him so badly, after following an adult's lead, that William sought a safer place at Gately Academy. After two years away, William wanted to rejoin his neighborhood friends in what Jan and Victor hoped was a more respectful culture. William's loss in many ways shows we have a long way to go yet on the respectful culture road, especially as it involves learning differences.
Third, when the Respectful Culture committee formed I urged the superintendent and school board to tap the broader student base as primary contributors. They, after all, have the most reliable, first-hand information and experiences. Not just the few student leaders, but representative students from all groups and non-groups. The greatest respect we can show these students is to really ask, hear, and be open to their perspectives. When our adult, generational biases interfere we miss so much of the message. Sadly, we missed it with William. Let's not miss it with any of our other youth.
Young Molly Ponkevitch's eulogy of William spoke volumes of the wisdom and clarity youth possess that we have lost in our busy lives. Molly said: 'I truly believed that everything William wanted he would get because he had the power to accomplish even the hardest goals and fulfill the most extreme duties. William saved my life in so many ways. No he didn't rescue me from a beast, pull me from a fire, or catch my deadly fall. William opened my eyes. William took me to where the grass was greener. William taught me to live the way that I want and to never doubt my dreams. William brought me happiness in the simplest ways. William taught me to take risks and from that I have learned to love life and more. Most importantly, William taught me to simply accept life. He didn't have to say what he liked about life or spend time even thinking about it, he just lived it. He showed me that someday my branches will fall to the ground and my roots will disintegrate into the earth. We were made to live and we live to die. And in between we experience the greatest revelation of life, acceptance.'
Kyra Pauli is a resident of Lake Oswego and president of Lake Oswego Special Education Parent-Teacher Association.
Editor's note: Victor Smeltz, William's father, viewed the Pauli piece and offered the following comment:
'Overall, we think this is well written, however we don't share Kyra's view that high school representatives needed to attend William's funeral in order to show their support. Moreover, we have been grateful for Mr. Bruce Plato's subsequent follow-up with communication to the student body and for his response to the alleged bullying, in an effort to create and maintain the ideal culture that Kyra describes.'
Additionally, the following was provided by Nancy Duin, communications coordinator for the Lake Oswego School District in response to Pauli's Citizen's View:
'During the six days that William Smeltz attended Lake Oswego High School as a new student, there was tragically little time for administrators, teachers, staff, and students to get to know him and to develop the supportive relationships staff seeks to achieve with all students. Unfortunately, Mrs. Pauli has not spoken with any of the administrators at LOHS, which might have provided the benefit of additional perspective. In the weeks following William's death, the following message from LOHS Principal Bruce Plato was read to all students and mailed to all parents:
'On Sunday, Sept. 17, William Smeltz, a 9th grade student at our school, died from asphyxiation caused by the seatbelt in his family car. Though the media has reported William's death as an apparent suicide, his parents and doctors both believe his death was accidental. I have met with William's father several times and, on behalf of our school, expressed our sincere sympathy to his family. I notified our teaching staff and counselors promptly the day I was informed. However, in my effort to respect the family's request for privacy, I did not immediately notify our school community, a decision for which I take full responsibility.
'William attended Gately Academy for 7th and 8th grades, and attended Forest Hills Elementary School and Our Lady of the Lake during his primary years. Though William was only at our school for a short time, he was a member of our student body and a valued member of our community. Understandably, his death was a shock to his teachers, support staff and peers, and has been devastating to his family.
'I believe that tragedies like this should compel all of us to reflect on our own lives, beliefs, and actions. Especially in this case, with a student who was new to our school and trying to fit in, I think we need to ask ourselves if we did everything we could to make him feel welcome. I have been extremely disappointed to hear reports that William may have been teased and treated disrespectfully by a few students during his short time with us as a Laker, and we are taking these reports very seriously. It is important for all of us to pause and consider our behavior and its effects on others.
'... It was announced in our Daily Log that a memory book is available in our counseling office. I encourage our students to sign or write a message to William's family. The book, along with any cards or condolences received, will be sent to the family.'