There were seven teen suicides in Butler and Warren counties last year, and three of them were committed by Middletown High School students.
Whatever the challenges Middletown residents are facing are also felt in the high school hallways, said MHS Principal Camela Cotter in an exclusive interview with the Journal-News.
“A school simply is a reflection of the community,” Cotter said. “What goes on in the community usually comes in and happens in your school. Whatever happens in Middletown happens in the school.”
Of the recent incidents, Cotter said that two students committed suicide over the summer and a third over Christmas break in 2016.
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death, after accidents and homicide, for 15- to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also thought that at least 25 attempts are made for every one teen suicide completed, the agency said.
Researchers at Columbia University have confirmed that suicide is contagious and can be transmitted between people like diseases. They said it spreads either directly, by knowing a suicide victim, or indirectly, by learning of a suicide probably through social media.
They found that people between 15 to 19 are two to four times more prone to suicide contagion than people in other age groups. Analysts call those spikes “suicide clusters” when an unusually high number of people in an area kill themselves in a short period of time.
Some have questioned whether the district is being pro-active about the rash of suicides, but Cotter says the district has implemented new measures in hopes of preventing another suicide.
“People always feel as though everybody is not doing enough, including their school,” Cotter said. “I certainly own that as principal at Middletown High School. I want my kids to feel comfortable, happy and healthy and to be getting the best possible education that we can provide for them.”
She said the staff, as part of its professional development, has taken “trauma training” to help detect when a student may be depressed. After the training, she said, teachers are better prepared to detect the “signs and signals” of potential trouble with students before it develops into something more serious that may trigger suicidal thoughts.
The high school also began Middie Advisory Period, where students and teachers meet weekly and work on their social and emotional development pieces, she said.
These sessions help staff connect with the students “on a different level,” Cotter said. “Make sure kids know that we are here for them.”
When a student dies, regardless of the circumstances, Cotter said school and outside counselors are available in the Media Center and students are encouraged to seek guidance. Students also are urged to participate in “art release,” where they draw posters and write their farewells on banners that are hung in the hallways.
“That is very important for them to help process that loss,” she said.
But, she admitted, the schools — really, anyone — can only take so many precautions.
“It’s very hard to get in front of what is happening all over the world,” she said.
Cotter takes every death personally. Cotter, who has one son, considers the 1,600 students in the high school her children.
“Losing part of the Middie family is a pain not like anything else,” she said quietly. “Each one of them, we love them, they’re precious to us, and we want to do our best for them in every way. Any loss is a pain to us as well.”
She said society has “a lot of challenges right now for students” who come from poverty, students who see crime in their own neighborhoods, and students who feel disconnected from members of their families.
“We have to do a good job at teaching students how to be resilient in the world,” she said. “There are points of challenge all over the world. Those things will be wherever anyone is. That’s a natural part of living, a natural part of growing up.”