A boy who graduated as valedictorian from Chandler High School at 16 last year and a 13-year-old Mesa girl took their lives this month, bringing the number of East Valley teenagers who have been lost to suicide to 35 in the last 22 months.
Adrio Romine’s intellectual ability was impressive. He graduated with a 4.937 grade point average and earned a full scholarship to the prestigious Arizona State University, The Barrett Honors College at a young age.
But his emotional development was not at the same level, his mother, Paolla “PK” Jordan said.
The need to evaluate teenagers holistically and look at their development in every way, came into sharp focus for his grief-stricken mom after Adrio took his life the day before Mother’s Day.
“Just because your child graduates doesn’t mean he’s ready to be an adult,’’ said Jordan, who intends to use her son’s death as an example that might save the lives of other teenagers.
His suicide was followed a week later by another tragedy when an eighth-grader at Poston Junior High School in east Mesa took her life.
The two suicides are part of a growing teen-suicide cluster that began in July 2017 and has claimed lives in Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Queen Creek, according to Katey McPherson, an education consultant and a suicide prevention activist.
Another five teenagers in nearby communities — including at least one in Scottsdale — also have fallen victim to suicide in the same time period.
McPherson said Adrio fit the profile of the last six victims: They all were white, middle to upper-middle income kids who excelled academically, but had made a tragic, impulsive decision because of lack of maturity.
Those deaths underscore what high school students who belong to the March for Our Lives movement have been telling East Valley school boards since December: there is a critical need for more social workers and counselors in Arizona schools.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and Jordan Harb, the east Mesa teen who heads the movement’s Arizona chapter, restated that need at a press conference May 13 — two days after Adrio’s death and four before the young girl’s suicide.
Harb and Hoffman urged the State Legislature, among other things, to appropriate more money for counselors, who currently have an average caseload in Arizona of 905 students — twice the national average.
The tentative budget put together by Republican lawmakers allots $15 million to school districts to hire either counselors or school resource officers.
Gov. Doug Ducey had proposed $20 million for an additional 224 counselors over two years, which would bring the average counselor’s caseload down to 766 students.
McPherson said Adrio exhibited typical warning signs that often are either missed or misinterpreted by parents and teachers.
She said some teens also can be great actors, achieving in school while hiding their emotional pain.
“We have to redefine success. We are losing the best and the brightest,’’ she said, citing the pressure put on teens to excel in school, win scholarships and get accepted by prestigious universities. “There are many different pathways to success.’’
Under the strain of that pressure, trouble at home, relentless social media or depression, young people can make a tragic decision in an instant.
“In the heat of the moment, the under-developed brain feels threatened,’’ McPherson said. “I think the common denominator is an impulsive act. The brain is ambivalent about living or dying. The key is for a person they trust to intervene and say, ‘I’ve got you.’’’
McPherson is hopeful that some young lives can be saved by the enactment of the Mitch Warnock Act — which requires teachers and other school district employees to receive training on how to spot early signs of suicidal tendencies and react effectively.
Moved by heart-rending testimony from parents of young people who have taken their lives, the Legislature unanimously approved the measure as the result of the work by three East Valley lawmakers — Democratic state Sen. Sean Bowie, who crafted it, and Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Rep. Jeff Weninger, two influential Chandler Republicans who said such training is vital.
McPherson said the old attitude that talking to someone about suicide could motivate them to do it is untrue.
She said it’s better to upset someone by asking them if they are considering suicide, rather than wonder afterwards if something could have been done to prevent it.
“It’s hard for a parent to go there. We don’t want to think like that when it comes to our children. It’s easy to dismiss warning signs,” added Natalia Chimbo Andrade, director of community education and outreach for Community Bridges, an East Valley behavioral health agency.
“We are seeing a change in our culture where we are more open in talking about mental health,’’ she said.
Yet, she added, because suicide is such an uncomfortable topic, “we don’t want to go there, but we need to go there.’’
Although the Warnock Act is a step in the right direction, preventing suicide requires a community-wide commitment, with teachers, parents and friends reaching out to teens, Chimbo Andrade and McPherson stressed.
“It’s not one person’s job…it’s everyone’s job,’’ Chimbo Andrade said.
Jordan said she never connected the dots, although McPherson noted that Adrio’s behavior were classic symptoms of a depressed person at risk of ending his life.
At 6 feet tall and 115 pounds, Adrio would sometimes go two days without eating. He slept a lot and, near the end of his life, gave away a large Mac desktop computer, his mother said.
Jordan said he told her he didn’t like video games anymore, which had been one of his passions.
“I really didn’t think it was an issue,’’ Jordan said. “There were no erratic changes in his behavior to make me believe there was something wrong. He was just being Adrio.’’
By completing the suicide, the precocious Adrio ended a promising life.
Teachers would tell him to help other students with their assignments because he finished his work so quickly. Jordan said, adding that several students told her at her son’s funeral May 19 that they owed their academic success to his tutoring.
No one knows exactly why Adrio killed himself, but he had talked about ending his life when he was 8, during his parents’ divorce. Jordan said she arranged for him to receive counseling.
“He was an introvert, he was quiet,’’ Jordan said. “The biggest thing was he wasn’t challenged. He was bored, even in the International Baccalaureate Program.’’
After graduation, Adrio continued to live at home. Jordan said her son “freaked out’’ when he went to an ASU orientation a year ago and learned room and board was $14,000.
“I was happy because he was close to home. Emotionally, he was behind,’’ she said. “He didn’t know failure. We wanted him to fail under our roof.’’
Jordan said she thought her son was blossoming during his freshman year at ASU. She offered to buy him a steak dinner to celebrate his achievements, but he rejected her offer.
“He just wasn’t happy,’’ Jordan said.