Students of a Florida high school where a gunman killed 17 people last year are mourning the deaths of what they consider two more victims of the tragedy – teenagers who apparently died in suicides one week apart.
Police were on Monday investigating the weekend death of a 17-year-old boy who attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD) high school in Parkland. Friday saw the funeral of former student Sydney Aiello, 19, whose family said she was suffering from “survivor’s guilt” and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Community and school leaders were stepping up the provision of mental health and suicide-prevention services, including the opening on Monday of a wellness and counselling center in Parkland specifically designed for students and their families.
Dozens of parents, teachers, school leaders, state and local politicians, law enforcement and mental health counsellors attended an emergency meeting in Parkland on Sunday, to discuss the crisis and ways to tackle lingering grief and trauma.
“We have students and staff that are still at risk,” said Ryan Petty, who founded the Walkup Foundation, a school safety and advocacy group, after his 14-year-old daughter Alaina was among those murdered on 14 February 2018.
“We have to recognise after an event like this there is trauma, anxiety and depression. We have to educate parents and teachers to recognise the signs,” he told the meeting. “Parents cannot be afraid to ask their kids the tough questions.”
By lunchtime on Monday, police had not released the identity of the 17-year-old male student.
“I can’t tell you if it’s related to the Parkland shooting,” Tyler Reik, an officer with Coral Springs police, said on Sunday. “We don’t know the reasoning behind it. It hasn’t even been confirmed as a suicide.”
Robert Runcie, superintendent of the Broward county school district, said he spent Sunday with the family of the 10th-grade student, “a great young man”. Earlier in the week he spoke with the family of Aiello, who graduated from MSD last year and was attending college in nearby Boca Raton.
Aiello, whose close friend Meadow Pollack was killed in the Parkland shooting, died on 17 March from a self-inflicted gunshot, according to the medical examiner’s office.
In a call to families of Broward’s 271,000 students on Monday, the first day of spring break, Runcie laid out the support available “in the wake of two suicides that have devastated our community”.
He pointed to a resiliency centre in Parkland staffed by mental health counsellors and free activities for students at the Coral Springs arts center. Additionally, the opening of Eagle’s Haven, a new wellness centre for MSD students and families offering crisis support, advocacy and a range of activities, was brought forward from next month.
“There is hope, there is help and there is healing,” Runcie said.
Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s director of emergency management operations and a former state representative for Parkland, called on politicians to send resources to the district.
“Now is the time for the Florida legislature to help,” he said in a tweet. “Mental health is a bipartisan issue. While we are in session now is the time.”
Activist David Hogg, a former MSD student who co-founded the March For Our Lives movement calling for gun law reform, echoed Moskowitz’s call, tweeting his concern at what he saw as a lack of support for survivors’ mental health.
“How many more kids have to be taken from us as a result of suicide for the government/school district to do anything? RIP 17+2” he wrote.
In a later tweet he attacked Donald Trump for spending money on golf trips but failing to offer funding for mental health services. The president’s federal commission on school safety, which issued its report in December, acknowledged “a lack of mental health professionals in schools” but left any rectification and financial commitment to states and school districts.
If Trump “can spend $91,000,000 on golf trips to Mar-a-Lago while our kids suffer from trauma he can fund mental health”, Hogg wrote. “If mental health is your solution PLEASE make that a priority. Please allocate that money.”
Sunday’s gathering in Parkland was “the first of many meetings with all city, county and mental health experts in order to make sure our students, teachers and parents receive the education they need to prevent the next suicide”, according to Max Schachter, whose son Alex was killed at MSD.
The meeting, with the support of the Broward school district, agreed to adopt the renowned Columbia protocol as a strategy for suicide prevention. The protocol provides three to six plain-language questions for friends and family members to ask, in order to evaluate a person’s risk.
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international suicide helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org