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Schools more aggressive about suicide prevention

From left AmaliMercado North AurorKatie Baki AurorKates Groom BataviCorinn Groom Aurorlook over photos their friend Ben WilkinsParty Park fundraiser for

From left, Amalia Mercado of North Aurora, Katie Baki of Aurora, Kates Groom of Batavia and Corinn Groom of Aurora look over photos of their friend Ben Wilkinson at the Party in the Park fundraiser for Suicide Prevention Services last summer in Batavia.

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Updated: June 14, 2012 8:08AM

First we hear about it through the rumor mill. Word of mouth spreads. Facts are confirmed. Even then, we don’t usually write the story.

Suicide is tough to report — even harder when it’s a teenager involved. Parents, teachers, friends still reeling with shock don’t want to make public this violent last act of a young life. Grief is horrible enough, but it’s even worse when combined with guilt. And anger. And confusion. And so many questions that will likely never be answered.

Lisa Larson had all those feelings when her 16-year-old son Dallas killed himself a year ago. But Larson is used to sharing tragedy with the public. She’s been in the media spotlight much of her life because of her sister’s murder in 1981 and the eventual guilty plea of the killer last month. She didn’t hesitate to talk about Dallas’ suicide immediately after it happened. Nor did she hesitate about going to her son’s school and asking what could be done to prevent another loss of young life.

On Friday, Yorkville High School held its first Suicide Prevention Walk. Principal Ron Kiesewetter said the school had already determined the need to do more on the issue; and training sessions among staff had been held earlier that year. But Larson’s visit, Kiesewetter added, reinforced the need for that next step: take the message to the community, despite the fact suicide “is a touchy topic to scratch open.”

Many schools have avoided the issue for that very reason, which frustrates experts like Stephanie Weber, executive director of Suicide Prevention Services of America. “We can go all the way to Alaska to do training. But we can’t get into schools right down the road,” she lamented in January of 2011 after the death of popular Marmion senior Ben Wilkinson.

Fortunately, a sea change has begun. Locally, it started in St. Charles after the district experienced six suicides in seven years. Led by the efforts of Bonny Waltmire, whose daughter Hilary hung herself in 2007, the school has made suicide prevention an everyday priority for students, faculty and parents.

Other schools are also responding. In April, the East Aurora School District, after several suicides last year, held a student-driven Suicide Prevention/Tolerance Week that featured daily topics such as bullying. And last Tuesday, the school brought in Manuel Scott from the “Freedom Writers” movie to address stress, depression and feelings of hopelessness so many young people are experiencing.

At the Oswego High School track next Sunday, the community is invited to join students and staff for the fifth M4M Walk to raise money for Suicide Prevention Services of America. The event was initiated by family and friends of Oswego student Matt Dennis, who killed himself in 2007. His death followed closely on the heels of the alcohol-related crash that killed five Oswego students. Soon after, the school received a grant to promote programs for social and emotional learning.

“I want to believe it’s making a difference,” Director of Student Services Patti Marcinko said of the initiatives now in place. “Kids are coming in to report if they see a friend in trouble. Students are learning to make better choices. They feel more connected to something, and they know there are resources out there to help them.”

Through health classes, support groups and freshman advisory classes, the goal in the Indian Prairie School District is to “establish a level of trust so the student feels safe, supported and validated when they enter our offices or approach a teacher,” said social worker Pam Witt. “We also want to teach them that seeking help is a strength, not a weakness and that sometimes things become just too big to handle alone — and that’s OK.”

Marie McKee, social worker for Elgin’s U-46 School District, agrees. There now are more personnel in the schools trained in early intervention, she said, and they are working on “disclosure and empowerment” among students. The stigma associated with depression and suicide needs to be erased, she and other educators insist — and they believe progress is being made.

“It’s important. It’s happening,” said McKee. “Do we need to do more? Yes.”

Suicide, she reminds us, is the third leading cause of death among those ages 11 to 18 in Illinois. “It impacts schools,” McKee said. “And it is preventable.”

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