A day after a teen suicide prevention conference at Desert Vista High School, another Tempe Union district student shot himself to death.
The 15-year-old Chandler boy became the third Corona del Sol High School student to kill himself in two years – and at least the 10th East Valley teen to commit suicide since July.
The tragic juxtaposition of the two events at Tempe Union high schools demonstrates the difficulty of preventing teen suicide and the risks of more happening when a cluster already has occurred.
“The biggest predictor of teenage suicide is one in the area. Given that there is a cluster, it’s a time to be more vigilant than ever,’’ said Max McGee, a former Palo Alto, California, schools superintendent who was the keynote speaker at the Desert Vista conference. “I feel so sorry for that family and that school.’’
At the governing board’s meeting tonight, Nov. 15, Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca will ask that its budget committee consider adding more social workers and “creating safe spaces on each campus for students to de-stress during the school day.”
“As we continue our efforts to provide social and emotional support to our students, more can still be done,” said Baca. The board meets at 7 p.m. at district headquarters, 500 Guadalupe Road, Tempe.
Meanwhile, Queen Creek High School officials, where at least two of the 10 suicide victims attended school, are screening all their 2,100 students for suicide risk.
Jennifer Liewer, a Tempe Union spokeswoman, said Tempe Union officials have not adopted the “Signs of Suicide” screening program being presented to Queen Creek students by Empact, a Tempe anti-suicide agency.
“As you know, the topic of suicide is very complicated. The more we learn about it, the more we realize just how difficult it can be to prevent and/or predict it,’’ Liewer said in an email.
“What we do know is that when a school experiences a death by suicide, the odds of another suicide occurring go up exponentially. We are highly cognizant of this and the school and community/parents are taking extra care of each other right now,’’ she continued, adding:
“Suicide is the result of someone who is not well socially, emotionally and physically, so we do believe in the importance of addressing the causes and identifying the symptoms and not just reacting to the tragic result that can occur when social and emotional wellness is not addressed,” Liewer wrote.
Tempe Union and Queen Creek this year began putting the toll-free number for Teen Lifeline’s suicide hotline on the ID badges carried by all students.
Lorie Warnock, a Mountain Pointe High School English teacher whose son was one of the Corona suicides, said the district needs a specific, anti-suicide protocol to deal with crisis situations like the one at Corona.
A member of a district committee studying how to deal with students’ emotional issues, Warnock said the district needs to figure out if the “culture and climate’’ at Corona – be they cliques or social bullying or something else – are contributing to the series of suicides.
“It’s incredibly sad. I think it’s very unfortunate and very telling that seems to be at the same school,’’ Warnock said.
McGee said boys are especially vulnerable to teen suicide and unpredictable, because they are less likely to talk about their feelings than girls and also are highly impulsive.
“It’s to be extra vigilant and really check in physically. Don’t leave kids alone for a long period time,’’ McGee said.
McGee’s district experienced five suicides in five months during the 2014-15 school year.
Corona’s latest suicide came despite the widely praised creation of the Aztec Strong support group by Corona student and performer Tatum Stolworthy.
Warnock said a student told her that the latest Corona victim – who died two days before his 16th birthday – had been shunned and humiliated on social media. A GoFundMe.com account has raised more than $8,100 of a $10,000 goal to pay for his funeral.
Queen Creek residents are taking other measures to combat the rash of suicides, which include two at its high school and two more near the town. The Queen Creek Chamber of Commerce is launching a youth commission and town officials are holding an educational town hall.
For the suicide screening, high school officials are having all students attend a 50-minute “Signs of Suicide” class about suicide, depression and other mental-health issues. They are then urged to come forward to seek help for themselves or to report concerns about their friends.
“We’re trying in a short period of time to educate the whole school,” said Sandra McNally, Empact’s prevention manager. “Students are realizing they are not helping by not telling. So many students are coming forward to say, ‘I am concerned about my friend.’”
The effort is drawing praise.
“The screening part is not typical at all, but it is so well-directed,” said Katey McPherson, an anti-teen suicide activist and executive director of the Gurian Institute, which has been organizing the education and prevention forums.
Nikki Kontz, Teen Lifeline’s clinical director, said the organization has partnered with more than 100 schools in Arizona.
Kontz said Empact and Teen Lifeline have worked with many districts but the extent of the Queen Creek screening program is unusual.
McNally agreed, saying many school districts agree to workshops and more limited programs than Queen Creek’s, saying they have counselors to handle the problem.
“There’s a lot of stuff that’s new to the East Valley; it is not new to the state,” Kontz said. “It’s overcoming the stigma of mental health in general. If we can reach kids earlier, suicide doesn’t need to be part of the conversation.”
Lee Harmon, a Queen Creek High counselor, said his school is trying to address teen suicide through prevention.
“More education and more awareness are a must in all schools,” he said. “They will not only help themselves, but they will know how to help a friend.”
Because teenagers are not equipped to handle a complicated mental-health problem, such as suicidal thoughts, “they need to tell a trusted adult,” Harmon said.
The Queen Creek suicides also sparked concern from the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Chris Clark, the Chamber president and CEO, is bringing together different organizations to address teen suicide, saying he’s acting in his role as a community leader and going beyond his usual job of representing business interests.
The Mesa Chamber also sponsored a teen suicide conference last month.
Clark is hoping to create a teen council, modeling it somewhat off a student-led anti-suicide effort at Corona called Aztec Strong. That group was started by Corona student Tatum Lynn Stolworthy, a singer who created the movement to make sure every student had a friend to talk to.
Clark was moved by a raw, heart-rending Facebook post by Queen Creek student Autumn Bourque, who wrote about the sadness of teens losing their friends and alleged that school officials were not doing enough to address the issue.
The Chamber leader said teens are suffering the most and their insight should not be overlooked.
“I want an active committee. We are going to empower them to put their plans into place,” Clark said.
Bourque’s Facebook post got a strong response, motivating Queen Creek officials to act.
“I think kids my age, we’re just under a lot of pressure to do well academically,” she said. “If you have a hard home life, it doesn’t help.”
Queen Creek High Principal Paul Gagnon declined to comment specifically on Bourque’s post, but said that the school is committed to fighting teen suicide head-on and that he makes it a point to speak with students.
“When we get students behind it, it makes a big difference,” he said. “They want more positive messages that they are loved and cared for.”
Gagnon also embraced the chamber’s youth commission initiative, saying, “What we’re about is developing leaders in our students. It’s a great forum for students to have their voices heard.”
McPherson, a former Gilbert school administrator, said it is vital for a school’s administration to tell students what is being done to address a variety of problems, including teen suicide.
“If they don’t communicate with the kids, their perception is that they are doing nothing,” she said.
She also praised the youth commission.
“I think its number 1. The kids will tell you what they need,” McPherson said. “Prevention works. We don’t want to wait until a suicide occurs.”
Bourque said she is glad teen-suicide is getting far more attention and hopeful other teens can be helped.
“I am feeling a sense of hope and change. It’s not about me,” Bourque said. “It’s defending the kids, keeping us alive.”