On her first day at Middletown Middle School, Hope Dehnert met Sean, a fun- loving, bright, and bisexual young man whose suicide would eventually lead to the creation of her non-profit, Sean’s Legacy.
Hope began Sean’s Legacy in 2019 after culminating her master’s in public health with a focus in female mutilation, LGBTQ health and social justice. Sean’s Legacy’s mission is to support LGBTQ+ youths, create school inclusivity and prevent teen suicide by promoting programs, services and providing essential resources. Hope aspires to spread to schools the values that are reflected on the Sean’s Legacy website: inclusivity, empowerment, respect and compassion.
Hope says that Sean experienced an excruciating amount of sexual identity bullying by his peers and neglect by school administrators before his suicide.
Hope and Sean went to school in Middletown PA, a small town that is relatively obscured by the larger Harrisburg. Both Hope and Sean became Middletown “Blue Raiders” when they began middle school in 2007.
Sean opened-up to Hope about his sexuality early in their friendship and was the first male to openly identify as bisexual in their class; which according to her, welcomed a lot of bullying. Hope said that despite Sean’s constant exposure to bullying, he was overwhelmingly accepting of others and they quickly became friends.
“Sean was always very playful, and he always knew how to make people laugh”, said Hope, “within the first then seconds of us meeting each other he was already making me laugh.”
Sean was nicknamed after Beyoncé’s song “Sasha fierce”, for his love of the artist and love of dancing; he also knew the words and all the moves to “Single Ladies”.
“He was always himself; he didn’t care. Every morning, we would have to do laps in gym class, and he would run and do the splits and run and do the splits……. I would just watch in amazement because I couldn’t even do one split and he would just do them over and over,” said Hope.
Despite Sean’s kind and strong spirit, the constant harassment and bullying took its toll. Hope described a long history of bullying by the other boys and failures by the school counselors in handling Sean.
“Sean experienced both physical and verbal harassment”, said Hope, “on the Monday before his passing, he rode the bus and was told by one of the students there to kill himself.”
After the bus incident, Sean had fought another student and had been taken to the hospital, after the fight he had attempted to commit suicide. Hope remembers going to school that following Tuesday and hearing rumors spread about Sean’s condition, many saying that he had survived.
“We were all told to eat by teachers and administrators and that they had an announcement. I remember being in class and one of my classmates telling me that he hoped that Sean was dead, I told him he would regret saying that.”
After lunch, Hope recalls the whole class being taken to the school’s gym for the announcement.
“I thought the whole process was weird. The gym teacher read a press release that we all would eventually take home. The press release said that a 7th grade student had committed suicide,” said Hope, “The rest of the day felt like a blur.”
Sean died on Tuesday May 19th of 2009, he was 13 years old.
Although Hope didn’t always know that she would end up starting a non-profit, the impact of Sean’s death steeled her resolve to do something about it. According to Hope, the school administration and district fought tooth and nail to keep her and her friends from honoring Sean’s death.
“We weren’t allowed to honor him in the year book, we weren’t allowed to write his name in our hands, and this continued all the way to high school graduation in 2014,” said Hope “ I was only allowed to organize a prayer for him and that was the extent of what I could do for my friend.”
Both Hope and Sean’s mother, Shaline, protested this.
Shaline organized a march that began in Middletown Middle School and ended over the Harrisburg PA bridge.
Hope says that all these obstructions by the school district can be pinpointed to a single event.
“Sean shared a suicide note with one of the guidance counselors that he had repeatedly gone to seek counsel from, and for whatever reason, the guidance counselor destroyed the suicide note; this was a few weeks before Sean’s passing.”
Hope mentions how the counselor did reach out to Sean’s mother to tell her about the suicide note but when she requested it the counselor did not have anything to show her.
The Middletown school district’s official stance on suicide is one of prevention, diagnosis and intervention.
“Any district employee who has identified a student with one (1) or more risk factors or who has an indication that a student may be contemplating suicide, shall refer the student for further assessment and intervention” states the Middletown School District website
The risk factors that faculty or employee should watch out for are: Family characteristics, adverse life circumstances, Personal characteristics, and behavioral health issues/disorders. Although Bullying and depression are mentioned as risk factors, issues regarding LGBTQ, gender identity or gender dysphoria are overlooked.
The Middletown district also lists a link to Trevor Project website as its only LGBTQ mental health resource.
Kristin Suleman, a licensed therapist and counselor at Ajana that specializes in the mental health of the LGBTQ community, said that this is common in schools.
Ajana is a Houston therapy and clinical service practice that focuses on inclusion and multiculturality. The Ajana team focuses on trauma, depression, transitions and anxiety therapy and welcome any LGBTQ community members.
According to Kristin, despite there being ethical guidelines, finding the right therapist can be challenging because many therapists have difficulties setting aside their personal beliefs about sexuality and gender identity.
“I have worked with some school counselors and honestly they do great work, but some of them, the way they approach LGBTQ youths can be very harmful and they don’t even realize it,” said Kristin.
Kristin believes that for there to be a solution, schools systems need to make an effort and concentrate on funding and training for counselors to improve these mental health services.
“I think it also comes down to some of the education of the staff, too; there has to be a balance, and educators need to be able to set aside their personal beliefs,” said Kristin.
SUAVV magazine reached out to the Middletown School district for comment but did not receive a response.
Hope’s biggest worry is a continuing trend that puts those who are part of the LGBTQ community at higher risk of suicide.
“Those in the LGBTQ community have always been at a higher risk of suicide and that’s because they face a lot of the external factors,” said Hope “ Also, what doesn’t help is this political climate in 2020, their rights are at stake and when people feel like their rights are being taken away that can cause a lot of emotional distress.”
But Hope isn’t the only one who thinks the LGBTQ community is at risk.
According to a study done by the CDC, the leading cause of death for those 10-24 of age is suicide and lesbian or gay youths are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
Kristin Suleman also agreed.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done in order to create safe and inclusive environments for youths and I am aware that suicidal thoughts and suicide acts have increased among LGBTQ+ individuals in recent years,” said Kristin.
Kristin commented that she has seen depression rise in her patients in recent months.
“I believe that it has been more challenging for LGBTQ+ youth this year because many have been stuck at home without access to supportive and inclusive spaces,” said Kristin.
For Hope, Sean’s Legacy is just starting out, and they have a lot of work planned.
“We are entering our second year and we are really proud of the work we have done in just one year,” said Hope, “We are getting more educational material out there about suicide prevention and LGBTQ identity.”
Sean’s Legacy has been providing educational material to schools and even to corporations that promote LGBTQ inclusion in the workplace. Hope is working hard to acquire the fundraising for one of her more ambitious mentorship programs at Sean’s Legacy.
“The mentorship program we want to kickstart is one where we would work with schools to match LGBTQ students with mentors that are directly aligned with their identity or their future career aspects. We want to make sure that there is representation, and that kids are able to see that it does get better,” said Hope.
Hope aspires to a future of inclusion where the fate of her friend, Sean, isn’t repeated.
“Kids know what’s different; they know when you are different, and I want kids to know that different doesn’t mean that it’s bad, it’s just another person,” said Hope.
The Sean’s Legacy website has provided a comprehensive guide of gender identity terminology that you can view here.
Hope highlighted the importance of validating other people and how by respecting and including others, we can be on the right side of history, and that will be Sean’s Legacy.