After student, teacher deaths, Boise school leaders urge mental health aid

This story was originally published on idahoednews.org Nov. 08, 2023.

Boise School District leaders are urging patrons to draw on mental health resources, after a string of student and teacher deaths.

In a Tuesday letter to parents and staff, Boise School Board President Dave Wagers and Superintendent Coby Dennis described the district’s “ongoing struggle with mental health” following the recent deaths of multiple students and a teacher. The district didn’t provide details on the deaths, citing privacy concerns, but categorized them as both accidents and suicides.

“And these are just the tragedies we know about,” Wagers and Dennis said in the letter. “Undoubtedly, there are similar stories that have impacted you, a friend or a neighbor. Our community is hurting. Our children are hurting. We are hurting.”

School leaders push mental health resources

Wagers and Dennis encouraged students, family and staff to seek out resources that could help with mental health issues. Their letter went to parents, guardians and staff within the state’s second largest school district, which has about 23,000 students.

Boise schools have “highly-trained” professional counselors, social workers and child psychologists who are available daily, Wagers and Dennis said. Outside of school, the district has relationships with “phenomenal” mental health partners, including youth organizations, health systems and public agencies.

That includes a contract with BPA Health, a Boise-based behavioral health and managed services company, to provide no-cost counseling to Boise School District patrons. The health company started offering the services to thousands of students across Idaho during the 2021-2022 school year.

The Boise district also deploys a “crisis response team” after a tragedy. The team includes counselors, security personnel, health professionals, school administrators and others, according to district spokesman Dan Hollar.

School leaders are encouraging parents and guardians to get involved with Communities for Youth, a partnership between the district, the city of Boise and St. Luke’s Health System to create a network that promotes child wellbeing.

“In addition, we continue to strengthen our curriculum so our students learn not just about resources, but develop a deeper understanding of mental health overall,” Wagers and Dennis said. “For far too long, Idaho has struggled with mental health challenges.”

Depression, suicide high among Boise students

Idaho has the 12th highest rate of suicide mortality among U.S. states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over the last two years, the Boise School District has conducted surveys of junior high and high school students that found a high rate of depression and suicidal thoughts.

Three in 10 junior high students and 44% of high school students reported depression at a moderate to severe level, Idaho EdNews previously reported. About 29% of junior high students and 34% of high schoolers said they had experienced suicide ideation at least once in the previous six months, the survey found.

The district is conducting a third survey this year, after the previous results led to the district’s first mental health summit, where principals were encouraged to develop resources for student wellbeing.

“We must face this challenge together as a community,” Wagers and Dennis said. “None of us can thrive in isolation. We cannot hope to move forward following different paths.”

Fairmont Junior High teacher among recent deaths

While it’s unclear which deaths the school leaders were referencing, they appear to be separate from those reported earlier this year.

In August, 16-year-old Boise High School student Jadin Zurawski died after being struck by a truck while he was skateboarding. In April, 17-year-old Timberline High School senior Justin Smith died after collapsing during a tennis practice.

Wagers and Dennis’ letter referred to students and a teacher who died over the last few weeks by accidents and suicide, but did not provide more details.

The Boise Education Association posted on social media late last month that Lucas Fitzpatrick, a social studies teacher at Fairmont Junior High School and member of the teachers union, died suddenly on Oct. 19.

Hollar confirmed that Fitzpatrick taught social studies at the school, and the Ada County Coroner’s Office told Idaho EdNews that a man with the same name died Oct. 19. The coroner’s office declined to share the cause of death.

Hollar shared a Tuesday letter from principals in the Boise High Quadrant that described multiple students deaths that “have left us all shocked.” The cohort includes Boise High School, North Junior High School, Hillside Junior High and Treasure Valley Math and Science Center.

“In times like these, it is crucial for us to come together as a strong and supportive school community to help one another navigate the complexities of grief and loss,” the memo to parents and guardians said.