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Agonizing over teen suicide; 'Why?' lingers as parents seek to fathom tragedy like no other

When Phil Chearmonte heard about the death of Williamsville North High School freshman Jamey Rodemeyer, he was crushed.

He and his wife, Linda, had walked this same road early last year. Their son was also a suicide victim and a student at Williamsville North.

"I was devastated," he said. "My first reaction was, 'Oh, my God. How could this happen when I know for a fact that there's so much [suicide prevention] information available at North specifically? It baffles me. Then, I guess my next reaction was, 'Wow. How does this impact what we're doing? Are we doing the right thing?' "

Jamey Rodemeyer was only 14 when he was found dead outside his home Sunday morning.

Joe Chearmonte had barely turned 17 when he took his own life at home.

And at least two other families in Sweet Home and Clarence have lost their high school-age children to suicide since early last year, Chearmonte said.

For many families of young suicide victims such as Jamey and Joe, the question arises: Why didn't I see this coming? Yet the answer can remain elusive days -- even years -- later.

"I'd give my life to get him help if I knew he needed it," Phil Chearmonte said of his son.

Jamey's death prompted a hastily arranged vigil Tuesday evening in Niagara Square that attracted about 50 people who called for an end to hate speech in schools.

Williamsville South sophomores Tori Martinez and Emmy Frank came with Tori's mother, Ivy Yapelli.

While they didn't personally know Jamey Rodemeyer, the girls said, they were heartbroken that a fellow student's suicide was brought on by school bullying.

"As we can see, it's an issue," said Emmy, who along with Tori had "NOH8" -- No Hate -- written on their hands. "It happened so close to us and it's a terrible thing. That's why I'm here, because I'm supporting [Jamey], and I'm supporting everyone in the LBGT community."

Led by the Rev. Ellen Brauza, an Episcopal priest and head of the Buffalo Community of the Holy Spirit, the group closed by singing "This Little Light of Mine."

Joe Chearmonte was an honor student at Williamsville North, a school gymnast and skier. In February of last year, he complained about not feeling well. A couple of days later, he killed himself.

When it happened, Phil and Linda Chearmonte decided they weren't going to make up any stories. Their son killed himself; there was no pretending.

"We chose to hit the issue head-on, and we think it was the right choice," Phil Chearmonte said. "You wonder if you're going to be embarrassed. You wonder if you're going to be chastised, and my wife and I decided we don't care."

Instead, they became advocates of awareness about depression and suicide, joining many others in the fight to bring attention to the third-leading cause of death among people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Studies also show that gay and lesbian teens are two to three times more likely to commit suicide. Rodemeyer was questioning his sexuality over the last year before eventually identifying himself as bisexual. He often blogged about being on the receiving end of gay slurs and hate-filled online posts from fellow students.

The Chearmontes applauded the willingness of Jamey's parents to be so forthcoming about the bullying and emotional distress their son endured, given the immediacy of their tragedy.

"They should be put on a pedestal for doing what they're doing," said Phil Chearmonte, who was too upset to speak at his own son's funeral, much less to the media, in those early days. "It's excruciating, and their reaction to that is a testament to their own strength and courage."

The Chearmontes said their son was the quiet sort, but they chalked up his brief and unexceptional one-word responses to their questions as average teen-to-parent talk.

The Rodemeyers knew that their son had problems but thought that Jamey was getting the help he needed.

In both cases, the parents said, their sons put on a mask of contentment that hid an unfathomable state of mental and emotional anguish.

In the days and weeks that followed Joe's death, his parents searched high and low for answers. Phil Chearmonte said he combed his son's laptop and school work for clues to his mental state. He talked with his friends, anyone who knew him, and still came up empty.

He didn't have any substance-abuse issues, or any apparent issues with bullies. Joe's parents talked with their three children about sex, drugs, having good friends and making good choices. They thought they'd covered all the bases.

"I certainly don't have the answer to how you're supposed to react when you think you're on top of this situation and it still occurs," Phil Chearmonte said.

Looking back, he added, his son probably suffered from depression.

Amanda B. Nickerson, director of the Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bully Abuse and School Violence, said issues of bullying and mental health cannot be underestimated in young people.

"We definitely know that kids that are targets and victims of bullying tend to be depressed and have suicidal ideation," she said.

Bullies, too, have mental and cognitive issues, Nickerson said. "There isn't just one silver bullet or best practice on how to deal with this," she said. "We know that just punishment is not going to do the trick."

Phil Chearmonte, now a local board member with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, established a website called to share Joe's story and make resources easily available to adults and kids.

He and his wife also are working with the Williamsville School District to present a free parent forum on adolescent depression and suicide awareness called "Out of the Darkness." The resource fair and panel discussion is being sponsored by the Williamsville, Amherst, Sweet Home and Clarence school districts Oct. 25 at Williamsville South.

Will what happen to Joe and Jamey and other lost kids yield change for the better?

Phil Chearmonte hopes so, but he sometimes wonders.

He reflects on the day he spent an entire day skiing with his son shortly before Joe died. They talked, but, in retrospect, the conversations obviously didn't go deep enough. Nothing is a good substitute for real communication between parents and kids, he said.

"I accepted his short answers, and I didn't dig deep enough," the father said. "I regret that now."

Another vigil in memory of Jamey is planned for 8 p.m. Sunday, when a group will walk south on Franklin Street from Allen Street.

News Staff Reporter Joseph Popiolkowski contributed to this report.


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