The hardest thing 

D-11 struggles to help kids and families in the wake of two suicides

On the dreary night of Tuesday, May 19, parents parked their cars and walked dutifully through the doors of West Middle School, up the stairs, and into the library.

There were, perhaps, 70 people in plastic chairs, including staff, teachers and counselors. They sat silently facing a screen on the far wall, surrounded by kids' books and plastic plants. Much like the atmosphere outside — where dark clouds looked ready to douse already-drenched streets — in the room it was somber, fearful and, above all, tense.

Two children were dead.

West, which is located in Old Colorado City and also houses an elementary school, is known to be tight-knit. The community was devastated when a 14-year-old student took his own life May 2. It was still reeling when another child, a 14-year-old girl, committed suicide on May 16.

The meeting, which was put on by the school's staff with assistance from Colorado Springs School District 11 and local nonprofits, was meant to provide guidance to parents on helping their kids cope with such bitter losses. It was also intended to prevent a third death — the prospect of which had shaken parents, because of rumors of a suicide pact.

Shawn Hayes, a West social worker who was leading the meeting, said there was no evidence of a pact. But it is very unusual to have two child suicides so close to each other — so rare, in fact, that the colleagues he consulted could provide no guidebook for dealing with the situation. None had gone through it before.

Hayes wanted to help parents by providing tips on how to identify a suicidal child (see "Read the signs") and by putting them in touch with community resources like Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention and AspenPointe. He also urged them to keep an eye on their child's social media accounts, to talk to their child's friends if they sense something is wrong, and even to ask their child directly if he or she is suicidal.

"It won't necessarily put thoughts in their head," he said.

The tough part is knowing if a child is suicidal or simply grieving, which is healthy. Hayes advised parents not to try to fix their kids' feelings about the deaths. For instance, he said, if a child expresses remorse at not getting to say a proper goodbye, it's best to simply acknowledge that it is painful to feel that way.

Several parents said they appreciated the tips, and the school's efforts to reach out to them. But there were also questions. What if a child really needed to talk to someone, a parent asked, but wasn't forward enough to ask for help? (Answer: Parents can call to request that their child be approached by a counselor.) Why hadn't the teachers addressed the deaths in class? (Teachers, who are grieving themselves, aren't trained to provide counseling to kids.) And why did staff remove a school memorial erected by students after the first suicide?

The last point was especially contentious. Hayes noted that the parents of the boy had wanted the memorial taken in out of the rain, so that it could be displayed at the funeral. And another expert noted that memorials — or similar public displays — can inspire copycat suicides from children who may be seeking attention.

But one father said that his child had not understood why the memorial was removed and was very upset. What's more, he noted, memorials are often a tool of healing for the living.

Lori Fleming, who is the mother of a child who was friends with both victims, says her own daughter also didn't know why the memorial was removed at first — though she quickly found out it would be at the funeral.

"[She] was devastated and then just overjoyed," she told the Indy last Wednesday.

Fleming says she understands that it must be very difficult for the school to handle the deaths, and she thinks staff members have done a good job. She also, however, feels like they could be a little less overprotective in the future and talk more openly with all the students. Suicide is an adult subject, but the kids get it, she says — they're going through it.

"If they had been more open and straightforward with the kids," she says, "they would have appreciated it."

In 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed suicide as the third-leading cause of death for youths ages 10 to 24. In Colorado, however, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens. So far this year, four children under 16 have committed suicide in El Paso County, according to the coroner's office.

It's been an especially hard run for D-11. Last fall, a child took his own life on the Doherty High School grounds.

"These are our kids," says Monika Hannan, a D-11 school psychologist. "We take this very, very seriously."

The district's approach to suicide is two-fold: It teaches high schoolers suicide-prevention techniques, and it has crisis teams that respond when a suicide does occur. The teams bring in counselors, psychologists and social workers, all trained in crisis response. But Hannan says there is no set way to respond to a suicide in a school. Schools are different. Children are different.

"We have to customize it," she says.

At Doherty, for instance, the school hosted a walk and released balloons in the victim's honor, and collected money for suicide prevention. At West, they felt it was crucial to hold a meeting for parents since the school year is nearly over and school counselors won't be able to provide continued help to grieving kids.

"I mean, this is horrible timing," Hannan notes.

But she says she hopes West's tragedies send a strong signal to the community that it's time to abandon the stigma around suicide and treat it like any other health problem. Taking a class in suicide prevention, she says, should be no different than taking a CPR course. It's about knowing how to help someone when they need it most.

It's about saving a life.


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