By VIVIAN YEE
Published: October 25, 2012
Felicia Garcia rarely cried, so when her friend saw her sobbing alone in a hallway between classes at Tottenville High School on Wednesday, she knew something was wrong.
The friend, Briana Torres, at 16 a year older and a grade ahead of Felicia, hugged her and walked her to sixth-period English class, the girls’ arms clasped around each other’s shoulders. On the way, Felicia cheered up enough to laugh at a joke, and make a joke of her own.
But there were signs of unraveling. Late Monday night, she had posted a brief Twitter message: “I cant, im done, I give up.” After school Wednesday, Felicia walked to the Staten Island Railway station where many students board trains home. She waited impatiently for the train, and as it approached, she hurled herself backward onto the tracks. A friend grabbed her arm, but she twisted free. She was pronounced dead that evening.
By the time her friends began to congregate in the hospital waiting room, posting messages on Twitter and Facebook in what would become a flurry of online speculation about her death, most had pinpointed a cause: Felicia had been bullied, they said, tormented by football players on Tottenville’s undefeated team. Some said she was teased because she had piercings and lived in foster care. Others said players had spread sexual boasts about her over the weekend, after Tottenville’s 16-8 victory over Port Richmond High School.
To many friends, she appeared to weather the swirl of innuendo with her usual confidence.
“She never really reached out for help; she was a really tough person,” Briana said Thursday, wearing a small tribute on her left wrist — an “RIP Felicia” inked in purple. “When I dropped her off at class, I wasn’t really worried about her.”
Felicia had reported the taunts to an administrator, who arranged mediation sessions between Felicia and the boys she said were harassing her. Police are now investigating her death. Neither they nor the Education Department nor the school would comment on the bullying allegations.
There was already little that was easy in Felicia’s life. Friends described her childhood as a patchwork of loss and instability: both her parents died when she was young, and she disliked living with her aunt, said Kaitlyn Antonmarchi, 15, who said she had been Felicia’s best friend since eighth grade. At one point, Felicia ran away from her aunt’s house with an older man. After she entered the foster system, she bounced in and out of different homes, dyed her dark hair red and sprouted a cluster of piercings.
With her latest foster parents, Felicia finally seemed happy and stable, Kaitlyn said. Moving to the other side of Staten Island, she started high school at Tottenville, improved her grades, let the dye wash out and eliminated most piercings. At Friday’s football game, Kaitlyn said: “She looked happy. She was laughing. It didn’t look like anything was upsetting her at all.”
Bullying is common at the school, classmates said, but administrators usually acted to stop it, and it rarely reached the level that Felicia experienced. Tease Felicia, and she would come back with a quick, witty retort, said Alissa Compitello, 17, a senior.
“If you tried to bully her, she’d laugh at you,” she said. “Somebody must’ve said something pretty bad about her for this to happen. They just wouldn’t stop.”
On Wednesday, Felicia had asked Karl Geiling, 15, a sophomore at Tottenville, about how his test had gone. He saw her at the train station later. “I was way down, away from her,” he said. “All I heard was screams, and then everybody went silent.”
At school on Thursday, many students wore black and purple, colors often associated with anti-bullying campaigns, and met with grief counselors. A crowd of about 500 gathered at the station in the evening, many holding candles. Someone had tied purple and black balloons to a chain-link fence overlooking the tracks, with notes and a photo fluttering alongside them.
As their classmates created anti-bullying Facebook pages in Felicia’s honor Wednesday night, several football players took to Twitter to protest what they saw as the wholesale tarring of the team, which is a perennial favorite to win the Public School Athletic League championship. At least two seniors have been offered scholarships to play Division I college football.
“None of you even no half the story so stop pointing fingers at the football team,” wrote James Munson, a safety on the team and the son of the team’s coach, Jim Munson. Another player, Richy Lam, a senior, said Thursday that many members of the team had not even known Felicia.
In New York, an anti-bullying statute signed in 2010, one of numerous laws passed around the country in the wake of teenage suicides, requires schools to develop policies to deter harassment of students by other students, including education programs and disciplinary procedures.
Prosecutions for student bullying are rare; perhaps the best-known case is that of Dharun Ravi, who was convicted of bias intimidation and invasion of privacy charges for using a webcam to spy on his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide a few days later. Mr. Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
“Bullying that violates criminal law can be prosecuted criminally, but not as bullying,” said Suzanne B. Goldberg, a law professor at Columbia Law School who directs its Center for Gender and Sexuality Law. Physical violence or threats of physical violence could be prosecuted, she said, “but what most often happens is that schools and prosecutors try to keep these situations out of criminal court which can be appropriate if the school system takes the incident seriously, punishes the offender and protects the victim.”
It is not clear whether anyone will be disciplined in Felicia’s case. For some students, the school’s next challenge is Friday’s football game against the rival Curtis High School team, the last of the season, which may be pushed to Sunday. Felicia was a fan. When Kaitlyn last saw her, she said, she had been planning to cheer Tottenville this weekend.
“She said, ‘Yeah, I’m going,’ ” Kaitlyn said. “And I said, I’ll see you there.”