After four suicides, a school and community begins the healing process

The wooden hearts once planted on the lawn of Milton High are gone now, replaced by a memorial at the school’s entrance, a somber reminder that life doesn’t stretch on forever.

Sometimes life stops at age 16. Seven months ago that might have seemed like an impossibility at Milton High School. Not anymore.

Since January, the school and the North Fulton community that feeds it have buried four of its students and former students. All four were males. All were bright, seemingly happy teens. All committed suicide.

Clifford Jones, principal at Milton, was still on winter break early this year when he received news of the first. A second followed.

By summer there was a third and a fourth.

“The community came together quickly after the fourth,” Jones said. “We all knew we needed to do something. “

And so they did.

In late June, nearly 100 parents, students and school staff and administrators gathered outside Milton for a candle-light vigil. A soft rain mixed with tears as they recalled the last time they saw the four teens, conversations with them, and pondered if there were any clues or signals they might have missed.

“I don’t think you can underestimate what that event symbolized,” Jones said. “It acknowledged things would be different moving forward.”

The question that lingered was, how? How could they prevent suicides in the future?

Suicide a leading cause death

According to Anna Ruth Williams, chairman of the Atlanta chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among those age 10 to 24 and the second leading cause for college students.

What’s more, in a 2012 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16 percent of high school students reported seriously considering suicide; 13 percent actually reported creating a plan, and 8 percent actually attempted to killed themselves.

An estimated 4,600 die each year nationwide, but there is another 157,000 who receive medical care for self-inflicted injuries at an emergency room.

“That shows you how many more attempts there are versus completion,” Williams said.

Williams, whose father committed suicide in 2008, has known for a long time that suicides among teens is a serious public health issue. What happened at Milton early this year, she said, brought it home.

Teen suicide will be the focus of the foundation’s annual fundraiser and awareness campaign, Out of the Darkness Walk, Nov. 3.

“We hope to honor and remember young loved ones who’ve died by suicide, and educate parents, teachers and students that help is available and suicide is preventable,” Williams said.

Kim Kirkup, a mother of a Milton High junior, made the walk last year to remember a friend’s young son. This year, it will be to honor the teens from Milton.

As a licensed psychotherapist, she has counseled scores of Milton students over the past 10 years, many of whom suffer from anxiety, substance abuse and depression, which often leads to suicidal thoughts.

Even so, she said, the recent deaths surprised her.

“I was shocked and heartbroken when it sank in that there were actually four kids who completed suicide,” Kirkup said.

It did not surprise her, however, that all four were white males, who are more likely to complete suicides than any other group.

“Girls attempt suicide approximately nine times as frequently, but boys succeed at killing themselves four times more often because they use more lethal means,” Kirkup said. “I know there must have been more than two suicide attempts in that time frame.”

And since such episodes often spur copy-cat deaths, she fears more suicides might follow.

“Other kids who are having a hard time and are depressed tend to look at the outpourings on social media and crave the same attention,” Kirkup said. “They don’t think it through. The postings will dwindle, and that child will never go to prom or college or see their little sister grow up.”

The sad thing is, Kirkup said, “Suicide doesn’t end the pain. It just passes it on to someone else.”

Changing how adults relate to students

Milton’s principal Clifford Jones has been at Milton since 2001. when he arrived as a teacher. He has devoted his life “to doing a good job for every child.”

In many ways, he said, Milton and its high school are mirror-images of each other: mostly white, mostly high achievers from upper middle class families, reflected in the luxury cars that fill the school parking lot.

It’s a high-performing school with a 96 percent graduation rate and more than 1,000 students involved in extracurricular activities. A third of the student body is considered talented and gifted.

The suicide victims, whose names are typically withheld in keeping with Atlanta Journal-Constitution policy, were no different.

“They were intelligent, well-adjusted kids,” Jones said.

Kirkup’s son Christian didn’t know the teens but shared friends with all of them.

“Hearing about the deaths left me solemn and confused,” he said. “As the trend continued it became more and more frustrating, but the worst was the growing devastation I saw in my friends as time went on.”

As principal, Jones knew the impact of their deaths would reverberate far beyond the walls of Milton High.

“Stress, anxiety, depression and substance abuse are all youth issues right here in Milton,” he wrote in a letter to parents June 28. “The recent suicides in our community have impacted a much larger population of our students than those who had friendships with the youth who are no longer with us.”

Jones assured parents that the school would work to build on its efforts to strengthen the student support systems. The school had already implemented the Signs of Suicide Program, a research based prevention program; provided crisis support to its students; and began networking with individuals and organizations to increase suicide awareness.Kirkup is now forming counseling groups to address teen issues.

“The grief that’s part of this process isn’t singular. It’s collective,” Jones said. “The letter was a way to acknowledge that Milton High School was going to be a different place. I wanted everyone to know we cared about them.”

Rallying the community

By the start of school on Aug. 12, Milton was more than ready to move beyond the news and the shock of the first half of the year.

It Takes a Village Milton Style, the organization Kirkup helped found soon after the candlelight vigil in June to educate the community and to take better care for their kids, was running full-throttle.

Teachers were careful to look every student in the eye and greet them by name. Some passed out index cards to gather information about their students: the extracurricular activities they participate in, their favorite movie, the number of siblings they have.

It’s no longer enough just to hold Red Ribbon week, talk about substance abuse during that time then forget about it, Jones said. There has to be open conversations about mental health and substance abuse so that everyone feels empowered enough to own it and seek help.

“We have to address these issues head-on,” he said.

The school brought in Scott Poland, an expert on suicide intervention, to offer assistance on building resiliency and to educate parents about the warning signs.

The community has embraced Jones’ efforts at every turn. Parents who once avoided any mention of suicide are talking with their children. The It Takes a Village organization has grown to almost 300 members.

Heather Pennington, who lives in Alpharetta but whose daughter attends a Milton middle school, applauded the high school’s efforts.

“It’s a community issue and the community needs to take responsibility for it,” she said. “Milton is doing the right thing.”

Her only concern, Pennington said, is prevention efforts need to began long before high school. It needs to begin at home, she said, with parents engaging their kids and confronting the issue head-on.

That’s what Pennington has done.

“I asked my daughter to promise not to hurt herself.” she said.

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