The death of a bisexual Sonoma Valley teen who killed himself after years of bullying has sparked a community discussion about the emotionally scarring behavior while raising questions among his family about the way he was treated.
Adam Kizer, a 16-year-old sophomore at Sonoma Valley High School, died Saturday at a hospital after being taken off life support, his family said.
He hanged himself four days earlier and did not respond to life-saving efforts, said his father, William Kizer.
The elder Kizer said his son had been a target of bullying since elementary school in Wyoming, where other kids once bound him and poured gasoline on him. The abuse continued in Sonoma after the family moved there in 2011, with students at Sonoma Valley High picking on the slightly built teen with shaggy hair, encouraging him to take his own life, the father said.
He had attempted suicide before and suffered from depression and post-traumatic stress, his father said.
“It’s the worst pain you can ever imagine,” the father said.
In a show of community support, about 200 people attended a vigil Sunday night at the Sonoma Plaza. Makeshift shrines sprung up at a park near the school as well as on campus, where students were taking final exams before the end of the school year.
Advocates say gay, bisexual and transgender teenagers are 30 percent more likely to attempt suicide. Ed Ness, co-chairman of the Oakland/East Bay chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, said bullying at school, home or online can lead to extreme feelings of despair.
“Very often, kids are not mature enough to realize what they say and do can have a rippling effect on their fellow students,” Ness said.
Sonoma Valley High Principal Kathleen Hawing said teachers were holding classroom discussions and counselors have been on hand to assist with grieving. The school notified students that Adam Kizer was on life support last week.
Hawing said she had not heard any reports that Kizer had been bullied. She called it the “collective responsibility” of faculty and students to address the issue should it come up.
“This is just a tragic loss,” Hawing said. “We’re working through it.”
Art teacher Aaron Anderson, who advises the campus Gay-Straight Alliance, said Kizer was among 20 to 25 members of the club. He took part in lunchtime rallies each Thursday and regarded the group as a place where he could be supported and feel most comfortable, Anderson said.
Anderson also said he was not aware that Kizer had been bullied. In general, the club was well received by other students on campus, he said.
“But you can’t be everywhere at once,” Anderson said. “I don’t really know what he was experiencing.”
Kizer’s father said his son had been picked on for being different since he was a young boy. When his son was 8 or 9 and the family lived in Newcastle, Wyo., Kizer said the boy was tied to a tree by other kids and had gas poured on him.
“They were going to light him on fire,” his father said. “Adam was able to get away.”
No arrests were ever made, in part because police dismissed one of the culprits as slow, he said.
Within weeks of moving west to Sonoma where his parents grew up, Kizer got in a fight with bullies at Adele Harrison Elementary School, was arrested and later was expelled from school, his dad said.