The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

November 4, 2011

Brandon Bitner's death brings bullying to forefront

By Tricia Pursell
Daily Item

---- — MOUNT PLEASANT MILLS  -  At 3 a.m. Saturday, exactly one year after 14-year-old Midd-West student Brandon Bitner took his life, his mother will place a vase at the memorial site next to the highway where he died and light the candle inside it.

That one act will set off a day of events to remember the boy -- who began a communitywide conversation on bullying -- including a 4 p.m. celebration of life service at his graveside, followed by a candle lighting near his place of death at Routes 104 and 11-15, where a 3-foot cross has been erected.

A picnic at his family's home, 5003 Route 104 in Mount Pleasant Mills, will be held from 1 to 3:30 p.m.

"Brandon loved picnics," said his mom, Tammy Simpson.

"It will be a hard day," she said, adding that lots of family and friends will be there to lend support. "He is truly missed."

Brandon Bitner, who friends and family describe as quiet, nice to everyone and an accomplished violin player, took his life Nov. 5, 2010, leaving behind a suicide note that said he had been victimized by bullies for five years.

Simpson has no advice to share with other parents about how to tell if their children are considering suicide.

"Brandon didn't have any signs," Simpson said. "That's the most upsetting thing."

He didn't change anything about himself, she said. His grades didn't drop, his friends didn't change, he didn't isolate himself.

The night before he died, he and Simpson had a normal evening together, sitting at home and laughing, and giving the normal hug before bed, and a "See you in the morning."

The tragic event, however, came with a message straight from Bitner. And that's the message Simpson and a number of Bitner's family and friends are dedicated to spreading.

"I think he just wanted people to accept him for who he was," Simpson said.

She has been sharing his story, and hers, at a number of speaking engagements over the past year.

"I ask them basically for acceptance," she said. "I do believe it all comes down to accepting people for who they are, not judging."

"Bullying is an issue," she said. "We need to all unite and do something about it."

And a good starting place is the home, she said. "We need to lead by example, as parents. We accept people for how they are, no matter what," she said.

The Midd-West School District has been called on by students and parents to crack down harder on bullying.

Bitner's best friend, Kassondra Walters, said not much has changed in the past year, but she expressed hope that educational leaders become "more aware of things that happen in the school."

It doesn't take the 16-year-old long to come up with characteristics to define her friend.

"He was an excellent violin player, nice to everyone, had a great smile, caring," she said. "He was a sensitive person who understood people in general."

She knew he was senselessly being bullied and would stand up for him every time. But, she said, "I didn't know it would get this bad."

The message of anti-bullying is stronger than ever in the Valley, and that's something that Bitner wanted -- "to open everyone's eyes to it," Walters said.

Midd-West Superintendent Wesley Knapp said although the school is not doing anything differently to combat bullying, "We are all probably more conscious (if not subconsciously) about any action that even smacks of bullying."

Midd-West had an anti-bullying policy that was followed then and continues to have a "very proactive anti-bullying program of instruction that addresses bullying, and we have a zero tolerance policy for it," Knapp said.

Website keeps message alive

Bitner's cousin, Katie Goodling, is the creator and maintainer of brandonbitner.com.

"The day that Brandon died, I read his suicide note," Goodling said. "He wanted people to know his story, and to stop bullying."

She had some web-building experience, so she did what she knew to do.

"I stayed up all night and built the basic website," she said.

In the first two days, it received 17,000 hits. Since then, it averages 50 to 70 hits a day, sometimes more, and has been viewed by visitors in up to 90 countries.

A Facebook page in his memory has 6,200 members.

Goodling updates the site a few times a week, adding news stories about bullying and letting people know about events planned in Bitner's memory.

"Bullying is such a huge problem," Goodling said. "Everyone talks about it, but not a lot is being done to stop it."

Parents and kids regularly share their stories on the sites.

"I just think it's important to keep his story alive," Goodling said. "His story shows what can happen."

A talented musician

A scholarship has been created at Susquehanna University in Bitner's name to honor his love and talent for music.

He was a "huge violin player," Simpson said. He was so good, no one would have guessed he had only been playing for three years.

He was dedicated to practicing, once if not twice a day.

"Brandon did everything in a big way," Simpson said.

He didn't just play the violin, he had to have the lighting perfect for what was really a big show.

"We would sit for hours and weeks, practicing lighting, and him playing the violin," Simpson said. "Brandon had a stage presence about him."

He awed everyone at a performance of an Evanescence song at a school talent show.

His goal was to go to Juilliard.

"I honestly think he would have made it," Simpson said.

Bitner also excelled at art. He was very talented, Simpson said.

And he had his future mapped out long before many of his peers were even thinking about what to do with their lives.

When he began ninth grade, he already figured out what his senior project would be: a concert at the school.

"His life was music," Simpson said.

How to help

A benefit concert for the Brandon E. Bitner Memorial Scholarship will be presented at 8 p.m. March 30 and 31 and 4 p.m. April 1 in Stretansky Concert Hall at Susquehanna University. Johann Strauss's comic masterpiece, "Die Fledermaus," will be performed. The proceeds will be donated to the scholarship, established in 2010 in remembrance of Bitner, who played in what was formerly the university preparatory program's youth orchestra. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for non-SU students.

Earlier in the year, a Susquehanna University senior received $1,500 from the scholarship fund.

The scholarship is for an SU student involved in music, who gets good grades and is underprivileged.

Another bingo is being planned for March.

An all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast will be held from 8 to 10 a.m. Nov. 6 in Applebee's, Hummels Wharf. Tickets are $6 for adults and $4 for children under 12 and may be purchased by emailing tammysimpson11@gmail.com.

Continuing Saturday and Sunday, 10 percent of the cost of every tattoo and retail sale at Enchanted Images Custom Tattoo, Middleburg, will be donated to the scholarship fund.

A painting by local artist Amanda Auman is being raffled off at Enchanted Images as well. Tickets are $3 each or two for $5. The winner will be drawn at 10 p.m. Sunday.

For more ways to donate, visit brandonbitner.com.