SCHOOL ADDRESSES SUICIDES HEAD ON

BY KEVIN PEARSON

 

STAFF WRITER kpearson@pe.com  

 

The school has had a lot to deal with this year: Two students committed suicide and a teacher was arrested on suspicion of having sex with a student on campus. Tensions on campus have risen and there have been more fights than usual.

 

 

With a number of students crying out for help and concerns of the potential for copy cat suicides, the school recently responded with an aggressive campaign to educate its students and staff and help them cope. Information has been posted around the school, and several assemblies were held Wednesday.

 

 

As the students sat packed into the gym listening to suicide-prevention experts, some openly wept. Others watched with stone faces and some hung their heads in reflection. A handful of students who were especially emotional were escorted to the counseling office, where specialists were waiting.

 

 

Riverside County Department of Mental Health officers spent a week on campus talking to kids and gauging the mood. Among them was Eric Gutierrez, who said he has never seen a campus experience two student suicides in a school year.

 

 

During a recent interview, Shaw reached forward to grab a tissue to wipe her eyes.

 

 

“Nobody truly understands,” she said. “Tell me of a school in California where you have two suicides and a teacher arrested for a sex scandal. This isn’t in the handbook for being a principal.

 

 

“I told the kids, this sucks. There is not a better word for it all than this sucks.”

 

 

CAMPUS REELS

 

 

The first suicide happened Thanksgiving week and the second in mid-March. Neither was on campus. In each situation, Shaw let the student body grieve how they saw fit. One included very public memorials, the other did not.

 

 

After the second suicide, Shaw felt it was time to bring the campus together.

 

 

Four assemblies were organized for students to attend Wednesday, with speakers who shared their own stories — one of a mother who lost her 17-year-old daughter, the other of a 23-year-old woman who lost her father.

 

 

In one corner, volunteer parents held boxes of tissues. They also ventured into the crowd, offering hugs. A steady stream of students eventually made their way to the counseling office, offering a hint that the wounds the campus feels are still fresh.

 

 

“There have been a lot of obstacles we’ve had to overcome,” student Cole Knauss said. “There have been so many ups and downs. And people have been down.”

 

 

That day, twins Lilyan and Enid Field walked around campus with rolls of tape and a stack of posters that told students where to go, should they feel suicide is their only option. Cards with the number of a prevention hotline were available as well.

 

 

In recent weeks, student leadership worked with every English class on campus to draft a pledge that each student will sign, promising to never let another Hemet High student feel alone in a time of need. Should a student seem desolate or in need of help, students can use the pledge to inform a counselor that someone needs help.

 

 

The pledge is printed on yellow paper, a color often symbolic of teen suicide prevention.

 

 

The two student deaths have not been the only situations that have rocked the campus this year.

 

 

On March 1, popular freshman English teacher Janel Ramirez was arrested for what Riverside County sheriff’s deputies say was an oncampus sexual relationship with a student.

 

 

The campus was immediately abuzz and Shaw has worked hard to focus the students. There have been more fights than usual this year, she said, but it’s to be expected as tensions are high.

 

 

“I have never seen this much drama and terrible things,” said school board President Bill Sanborn, whose son attends Hemet High. “It’s unheard of.”

 

 

As administrators noted, the school has had its high points this year. It is among the first nationally to take part in a groundbreaking freshman program aimed at addressing life issues — such as suicide, depression, drugs and sex — and integrating lessons into the classroom. Test scores are increasing, and Hemet High is having a banner year athletically.

 

 

But there is no denying that this year has been tough on the student body.

 

 

ONGOING EFFORTS

 

 

Jeremy Willinger, with the Mental Health Association of New York City and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, said there is no textbook way to deal with a campus after such events, but they must be addressed.

 

 

“I’m not sure if there is a right or wrong way for schools to deal with it, but the wrong way is to not do anything,” Willinger said. “It’s a potentially upsetting scenario for any community. It signifies that something was overlooked or missed.

 

 

“It’s important that the response is to not keep quiet. It has to be used as an opportunity to help educate others.”

 

 

Stephen Brock, the past president of the California Association of School Physiologists and a psychology instructor at Sacramento State University, said about 90 percent of suicides can be linked to mental health issues.

 

 

But the bigger problem among adolescents is the phenomenon of suicide contagion, where one can lead to copycats. About 5 percent of school-aged suicides can be linked to this, where the attention produced from one can lead another student to seek the same choices.

 

 

“We don’t want young, impressionable teenagers thinking that dying is a way to get a lot of attention,” Brock said. “It’s not a healthy coping response, but it is reality.”

 

 

In a new construction area set to be completed this spring, Shaw said she will set up an area where students can have solace and remember their fallen friends. And there will be ongoing classroom support to deal with the issue of teen suicide.

 

 

And, says Shaw, there will no doubt be other moments of solitude in her office when the weight of the most trying year of her career hits her. But as she looks at a number of cards she has received from the family of the first student and other students, she is reminded why the school has to press on.

 

 

“It’s all about the kids and being here for the kids and supporting them,” she said. “This is why I do my job and come to work every day with a smile on my face. It has not been easy. These are things that rarely happen in a career and they have all happened at once.”

 

 

SUICIDE PREVENTION

 

 

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention reports there were 4,371 suicides in the 15-24 age group in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers were available.

 

 

MORE THAN 75 percent of suicides are performed by males. IT IS THE THIRD leading cause of death in the 15-24 age group.

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