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After teen suicides, local school uses art to heal 

The Cut

click to enlarge GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell

Discovery Canyon Campus houses students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, and middle school visual arts teacher Shell Acker says they all have something in common: Everyone knows where their fish is. It's not an easy feat — there are more than 4,000 lining the hallways of the school.

"At my last measurement," Acker says, "I know we have over 3,200 feet in one continuous paper chain." It's enough that her seventh graders insisted the school apply for recognition in Guinness World Records.

Acker and five other art teachers started the project in September, having students and faculty make paper fish, using everything from construction paper to wallpaper samples to old math worksheets.

But the piece isn't a triumph. It's a response to a sad, scary situation — teen suicides. Between late 2015 and summer 2016, five Discovery Canyon students committed suicide. A total of 14 young people completed suicide in El Paso County in 2015, and as of mid-October, another 13 committed suicide in 2016, according to a Newsweek article released on Oct. 19. The article describes the tragic events as a suicide cluster, when "an unusually high number of people in an area kill themselves (or attempt to) in a short period of time."

"We thought what we had were well-adjusted kids, and we think that every day," says Acker. "In years past, in different years, as long as I've been a teacher, sometimes it goes on the hush-hush, and we're told 'Don't speak about this.' Well, I'm sorry. We've got to change what we're doing... We've got to talk about this with kids. We've got to tell them that tomorrow is going to be a better day, and we're right there with them."

Thus, the fish. They're all swimming upstream — and swimming together as a single school, Acker says.

"Our kids learn in so many different ways that a visual art installation is just one more way to tell the kids we're with them," she says. "We continue to grasp at straws. How do you save that kid? What did we miss? ... I'm not naïve. It's a paper crafted animal." But art has helped people explore difficult emotions since time immemorial, and after last year, Acker and company figured a visual reminder that the students aren't alone, if nothing else, couldn't hurt.

"If it saves one life, you know?"

If you or a loved one has thoughts of suicide, call the Suicide Prevention Partnership hotline at 719/573-7477 or 888/885-1222.


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