In just a little more than a month, 9-year-old Nico Pampena endured the torments of bullying, a thwarted suicide attempt, a 28-day, in-hospital behavioral health program — and, then, gladly accepted an invitation to be mayor for a day in Lower Burrell.
Pampena will be the featured star for Lower Burrell’s Anti-Bullying Day on Saturday. Activities run from 2 to 6 p.m. at City Hall, featuring a speaker on anti-bullying, Nico fulfilling some mayoral duties and a picnic at Burrell Lake Park.
“I heard about his disabilities and being bullied, and it touched a part of my heart,” said Lower Burrell Mayor Rich Callender, whose idea it was to make Nico mayor for the day. “I want him to know there are people here in the community who want to reach out to him.”
Actually, there have been people all over the country sending cards to Nico, with some including small gifts, after hearing of his plight with bullying and his attempt to take his life. His story was first told in a Facebook post by Nico’s mother, Amanda Pampena of Arnold.
Nico began snorting involuntarily early last year , according to his mom. This was a new development for the bright and active boy, who was diagnosed at age 3 with learning disabilities stemming from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD).
He was mainstreamed in school and took some special classes in the New Kensington-Arnold School District.
Pampena thought there was something wrong with his ears, nose or throat. After a physical exam found no problem, a friend suggested he might have Tourette syndrome, a childhood-onset disorder characterized by involuntary, repetitive movements and vocalizations.
Pampena took Nico to a neurologist who, indeed, diagnosed Nico with Tourette syndrome.
At the same time, Pampena was receiving reports that Nico was disrupting classes. He was snorting and reportedly growling at a teacher.
“He didn’t mean to do it,” she said. “He didn’t realize what he was doing.”
Nico’s behavior caused a cruel backlash from kids at school and his youth football team, according to Pampena. They called him “ugly, stupid and weird.” His parents pulled him out of football.
Then there was school.
Nico didn’t tell his mom about the harassment from the kids at school.
She had to find out from the mother of one of his friends, after his suicide attempt.
New Kensington-Arnold Superintendent John Pallone declined to comment. He said he is not permitted by law to discuss any student without a parent first giving written permission.
That terrible night
“The night he tried to take his life, he came home from school — he was mad,” Pampena said.
“He had a horrible day. I got mad,” she said. “I took the TV out of his room.”
Nico went downstairs and tried to wrap a cord from a set of blinds around his neck and was trying to jump off the arm of the couch in an attempt to hang himself, Pampena said.
His father, Domenic, came into the room and stopped Nico.
“Leave me alone,” Nico told his dad. “I hate my life. I don’t want to live anymore.”
The day after the suicide attempt, Pampena found out through a friend that Nico was being bullied at school.
“I had no idea,” Pampena said.
She tried to get her son to talk about it. He told her that one of the bullies told him he should kill himself.
While Pampena doesn’t know the details of all that was said to her son, she knows that he was being physically and verbally bullied.
After treatment, ‘a different kid’
The Pampenas put Nico into a 28-day behavioral treatment program at Pittsburgh Mercy behavioral health clinic to help him cope with bullies and the other hardships that come with living with a disability.
He returned from treatment April 16.
“He came back a different kid,” she said. “They taught him to control anger, instilled coping skills so he isn’t so angry and hurt.”
Nico now says, “I feel good.”
He acknowledged that “bullies are mean,” and the next time he is bullied, he will tell a principal and “I will walk away.”
Additionally, Nico is on a drug that is curbing some of the Tourette behaviors, which he could outgrow over time.
He’s finishing out this school year in home schooling.
The family isn’t sure whether he will return to public school next year.
Pampena and Nico visited the school district last week to discuss his future. Nico got to catch up with his classmates.
“They all hugged him,” Pampena said. “Even one of the bullies.”