Schools like to be famous for football victories or ivy league acceptance rates, not suicide. However W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia is infamous after six students took their own lives in just three years.
According to The Washington Post, Jack Chen, a sophomore with a 4.3 grade point average who didn’t drink or do drugs, is one of the latest deaths. The 15-year-old captain of the J.V. football team stepped in front of a commuter train on February 26. Another unnamed Woodson junior was found dead the next day.
Chen, along with the junior, Cameron Kilby, Nick Stuban, Bryan Glenn and Ethan Griffith all committed suicide in the last three years. No one seems to know the root cause, though some blame the high intensity atmosphere of Woodson High itself as well as the local college competition.
“A loss like this cuts a deep wound. It persists. It lingers. It’s very slow to heal,” said Steve Stuban, whose son attended Woodson and committed suicide in 2011. “I have no idea what causes this to occur with increased incidence. All I know is it seems it’s occurring more at Woodson than any other place in the county.”
Before his fatal decision, Chen wrote a suicide note saying that he “couldn’t keep doing this,” pointing out that stress from school and expectations from sports, friends and family were draining him. Before the note however, Chen's family says he exhibited little signs of high risk behavior before his death and, like the other Woodson kids who took their own lives, he earned good grades, had a stable family and excelled at sports.
Now the parents, teachers and administrators in the Fairfax area have opened up communication with the kids about self-harm and depression. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that teen suicide has fallen since its peak in the 1980s but in Fairfax County 10 teens killed themselves in 2013 alone.
Administrators like Karen Garza, the Fairfax County superintendent, are encouraging students, parents and teachers to talk if they need help and there’s a countywide mental health day planned for May 17. But the school district's teachers might be part of the problem, according to one parent. Gayle Griffith, mother of the late Ethan, says she found a school paper after her son’s death where he'd written that he was depressed and having suicidal thoughts but his teacher did not report it.
“How many more need to die before somebody wakes up and realizes there is a situation that warrants bringing in more resources to fight this problem?” Rosella Glenn, mother of Bryan, said. “I’m tired of seeing flowers and signs around Woodson.”
The superintendent’s office says it is planning to have all of their teachers review training on recognizing the signs of depression and suicide in students. Elsewhere, the school is kickstarting wellness programs like after school yoga or mental health first responders, who help other teens in need sort of like conflict resolution teams.
Even with these new age methods, Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, says that clusters of suicides could be harmful also.
“Youths are more susceptible to [suicide] contagion, and research has found that 2 to 5 percent of teen suicides had a possible role of contagion," she said. "It is a vast minority, but it doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist.”
In the age of social media, students retweeted and favorited the final updates from Chen and the junior who was found dead the day after him, exposing many more students to the trauma of their deaths. As the Fairfax community tries to minimize the effects of their town's suicides, social media may not be helping but they're still searching for what will.
Image via Facebook.