Kids in Crisis
Open, honest communication as a community is the first step in helping our children - Photo courtesy of BluDoor Studios
Coping with Teen Tragedy
By Tracy L. Southers, APR
City and school leaders are well versed in dealing with multimillion-dollar budgets, capital projects and infrastructure issues. Teachers and counselors are experts at test preparation, assisting with class schedules and monitoring academic performance. And parents are pros at giving pep talks, juggling extracurricular activities and keeping the refrigerator well stocked. But how does one begin to tackle the community troubles of teenage drug and alcohol use, suicide and mental illness? The short answer: together.
Child safety in today’s world is a multifaceted, mind-boggling issue — one that entails protecting kids from on- and off-campus violence and peer pressure, and often from themselves.
Tragedy hit hard in Southlake this school year, sending heads and hearts reeling. On top of this, gut-wrenching national tragedies are forcing changes in gun control and school security. With so much difficulty facing us, we truly have a daunting task to take on.
But it’s not the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., that brought the issue of child safety to the surface in Southlake, where it’s now being addressed in public forums, during teen counseling groups and from the pulpit during Sunday sermons. Six students have died in the Carroll Independent School District (CISD) during this academic year alone. Include the deaths of two CISD graduates last summer and the number grows to eight. The causes of death range from accidental and illness to drug overdose and suicide. These are tough issues to face at any age, but they take an especially hard toll on students, now grieving the loss of friends and struggling to understand why.
The always-important issue of protecting our youth has again taken center stage. To solve these problems, we must get to the root of them as a community. Drugs, alcohol and suicide are claiming young lives every day:
· There are 5,000 teenage deaths in the United States each year due to alcohol.
· Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youths in Texas.
· In Southlake, there have been 47 suicide attempts reported since 2010, eight of which resulted in death; 14 of the attempts were committed by a person between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, and three of those resulted in death.
Clayton Reed, pastor of Southlake Baptist Church and chaplain for the City of Southlake, has been on the frontlines of this battle — he has informed parents of a child’s death and spoken at funerals, and he continues to counsel troubled teens.
“Our doors are wide open to kids and families who are going through hard times. We have to acknowledge the problem is bigger than us, but the solution is not bigger than Him,” says Reed.
A SPARK OF HOPE
Often considered taboo subjects best handled behind closed doors, drug and alcohol use, suicide and mental illness must be addressed with open conversations at home, at school and in the community. Leading the public education and awareness effort in the area since 2007 is Southlake Parents Against Risks to our Kids (SPARK), a non-profit organization founded by Laura Hill, a Southlake resident and former city council member. Its website, www.sparknow.org, provides an extensive database of information and treatment resources. Hill, along with Suzanne Maisto, works closely with CISD to determine program utilization and identify speakers.
SPARK has hosted public forums on many issues affecting teenagers including eating disorders, bullying, sexting, binge drinking, date rape and online sexual predators. A three-part series held last fall on drugs and alcohol drew hundreds of parents and included speakers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office and Southlake Department of Public Safety (DPS).
“We are forcing people in Southlake to talk about these issues and communicate with their kids. As a parent, you must talk about drugs and alcohol because your kids will be confronted with it — it’s just a matter of when,” Hill states.
“If we touch one person’s life then we’ve been successful. The recent tragedies have brought people to a place where they want to do something about it,” she comments, noting that she is now getting requests for help from students, not just parents.
This was evident Feb. 4 when nearly 1,000 students and parents attended a SPARK meeting at Carroll Senior High School about teen stress, depression and suicide. Initiated by students in anguish over a friend’s suicide, the program featured Vanita Halliburton of Plano — who shared the story of her son’s struggle with depression and bipolar disorder that eventually lead to his suicide at age 19 — and drew attendees from Grapevine, Plano, Arlington and other areas.
“Kids are desperately looking for ways to express sadness and deal with stress,” Hill points out, adding that without an appropriate outlet, some turn their feelings inward and that can lead them down darker paths. For some, the pain is too much. Convinced no other option exists, they could turn to suicide.
Even confronted with the suicide of a loved one, many find it difficult to openly talk about or grieve the loss. “It is much more acceptable to grieve publicly when a death is accidental. Families think there is a stigma to suicide, and that they will be judged.”
Southlake resident Annette Borkowski, whose son, Nick, committed suicide Sept. 29, 2011, now speaks openly about his death. Although she still doesn’t have answers as to why it happened, she is hopeful her story will encourage teens and parents in Southlake to talk about topics that really matter.
“Perhaps because he didn’t show any signs that were recognizable, we were shocked by his death. No matter the age, we only know about another person what [he or she] chooses to share with us. Nick’s suicide might have been an impulse that couldn’t be undone,” she contemplates. “We need to encourage our children, especially boys, to put their feelings and thoughts into words and share them with others, especially adults. Keeping things bottled up inside is not healthy.”
Borkowski also believes there is a “this won’t happen to me” mentality for too many parents that must be changed.
“Our incomes and houses may be bigger than those in other places, but we don’t get a free pass from life’s issues. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, teen pregnancy and physical abuse are real and present in Southlake. It’s time to stop ignoring these issues and face them in order to make real changes in the lives of our youth.
My hope is that no other families have to go through this. Everyone deserves to be mourned, no matter how they die,” Borkowski states.
One tragedy that did bring a public outpouring of sympathy was the deaths of Paul and Mason Ledet, two CISD students killed in a plane crash Oct. 6, 2012, along with their father and uncle. A student-organized candlelight vigil at Dragon Stadium brought 5,000 people together to mourn. Students and teachers wore maroon ribbons for weeks in honor of the Ledets.
“Knowing people were praying for us was helpful. Nobody understands what it’s like to lose a child until it happens to them,” says Debbie Ledet, mother of Paul and Mason. “It’s very important to me that no one forgets my boys.”
Ledet acknowledges the pain is never over, but like Borkowski, she is turning her grief into a message of hope.
“My purpose now is to help others — this is what gets me out of bed in the morning. No matter how the loss occurred, we must have compassion for the family,” she comments. “I want something good to come from my sons’ deaths. We never know what tomorrow will bring.”
REACHING OUT FOR HELP
Six student deaths in four months is unimaginable — no one could have prepared for this. But now it is time to respond. Leading this charge at CISD is Dr. Becci Rollins, coordinator of counseling, who oversees 19 counselors across all campuses and works closely with the three School Resource Officers (SRO) supplied by Southlake DPS.
“I’ve been here 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Dr. Rollins states, noting her team completed crisis-intervention training last October. “Students have experienced in a few months what most people will never experience.”
According to Dr. Rollins, the mission of the counselors is to help students achieve their goals and still remain healthy. This ranges from course selection, stress management, drug and alcohol education, grief-counseling and the use of external resources.
“Our counselors and teachers have provided an amazing support to the students and families. Regardless of the cause of death, students must be able to grieve and express their feelings in a positive way.”
Dr. Rollins, who has a doctorate in family therapy, emphasizes the importance of parental involvement.
“Drug and alcohol prevention [directed at teens] is important, but parents must be involved. They need to know it is okay to look in their child’s room, computer, phone and car. We never work with the student as an island; we work with the entire family,” she confirms.
CISD also offers students an anonymous communication service called Talk About It® to report issues to school personnel via text or email that they are not comfortable discussing in person. But if the information received is deemed to be harmful to the student or others, the student is contacted.
“Students are afraid to call the anonymous number because they don’t trust that it’s really anonymous,” says Joey Litwak, a junior at Carroll Senior High School. “We want to help, but don’t want to be a tattletale.”
Litwak, who was best friends with one of the students who died last year and spoke at his funeral, says he would go directly to his counselor if he thought a friend was in trouble. He also believes peer pressure is the biggest cause of drug and alcohol use among students.
“I don’t think it’s widespread in use, but there are certain cliques where it is,” he states. “It’s a choice to say no or do it and ruin your life.”
Helping students make the right choices is Teen Lifeline, Inc., a faith-based organization that led a seven-week support group at Carroll Senior High School starting in January. Only open to students, it provided a forum to share feelings safely and privately. Facilitated by an adult from Teen Lifeline, students learned how to find and use resources, manage stress, and build positive relationships.
Pastor Reed reports he is receiving calls each week from parents seeking help for their teenagers. To meet these needs, Southlake Baptist Church recently partnered with a local counseling agency to offer professional counseling services in-house.
“As parents, we make assumptions that kids will do the wrong things, but we can teach them to make wise choices. We are actively trying to work with our own kids and make sure they are well equipped to deal with challenges we didn’t deal with 30 years ago,” he explains.
Southlake Chief of Police Stephen Mylett has made addressing teen drug and alcohol use in Southlake his top priority. The department started a narcotics investigation unit last year; formed a partnership with the Tarrant County District Attorney’s Office juvenile crimes prosecutor; increased its school presence; and produced educational materials for parents, including an eye-opening bill of rights.
“The role of law enforcement is to reduce crime and enhance public safety which we are doing through a variety of programs,” says Chief Mylett. “Issues like this don’t happen overnight and the solution won’t happen overnight.”
Surrounding communities are not immune to these problems and proactive steps are also being taken. Although Grapevine-Colleyville ISD reports no students deaths this school year due to drugs, alcohol or suicide, the highly publicized deaths of two Carroll ISD students from an apparent drug overdose occurred at the Grapevine home of a 2008 graduate of Colleyville Heritage High School.
Robin Davis, who heads GCISD's Safe and Drug Free Schools Program, shared the results from its 2012 student drug and alcohol survey that revealed alcohol to be the most consumed, followed by tobacco, marijuana and inhalants. A small percentage of students reported use of ecstasy, cocaine, hallucinogens, and other drugs. The survey is done every two years to an anonymous, random sample of students in grades 4-12.
GCISD also recently launched Friends for Life, an anonymous reporting system operated through Crime Stoppers of Tarrant County. Students may text, email or call-in information regarding bullying, violence, threats of suicide or other issues that need to be addressed by police or school authorities. Davis confirms the student's identify is not revealed to school personnel under any circumstance.
Likewise, Keller ISD reports no student deaths this school year due to alcohol, drugs or suicide, but has implemented random drug testing for all high school students. This program is managed by its Counseling and Guidance Department, which includes a drug and alcohol prevention coordinator.
A COMMUNITY COMES TOGETHER
School safety used to mean crossing guards, fire drills and the buddy system. Today, this has expanded to include metal detectors, surveillance cameras and armed guards. The issue of school safety is in the national spotlight, and it has grabbed lawmakers and education administrators by the proverbial collar. In response to the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, President Obama quickly proposed gun control measures and federal funding for improved school security.
While most agree there is a bigger threat to students in Southlake from drugs and alcohol versus a possible school shooting, a task force was formed days following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that includes representatives from the City of Southlake, CISD, SPARK, local churches, the U.S. Department Homeland Security, and a private security company.
Southlake Mayor John Terrell reports the task force is in the beginning stages of researching best practices and will eventually submit recommendations to make the community safer.
“We are a safe city and school district, but you can’t plan for everything. We are taking this opportunity to see what else can be done. We are always looking for ways to improve,” Terrell states.
CISD is tight-lipped about its security measures, resources and future plans, not wanting to jeopardize safety protocols. According to CISD Board of Trustees President Read Ballew, the responsibility of district safety falls to three high-level administrators: Superintendent David Faltys, Assistant Superintendent for Administrative Services Derek Citty, and Assistant Superintendent for Board and Community Relations Julie Thannum.
“There is a new public awareness about school safety, but it is not new to us. The school shooting in Connecticut created a new reality and we must deal with it,” Ballew acknowledges. “We have an annual review of security measures and work closely with Southlake DPS.”
According to Thannum, the responsibility for school safety is a team effort, involving individuals that make up the superintendent’s cabinet and other key central office and campus administrators, including school counselors and nurses. The district has been training its staff in school safety and also draws on the expertise of security personnel in the community.
One of the action items the task force is considering is adding a SRO at every campus, but that comes with a price tag of approximately $740,000 annually. Currently, there are three SROs in the district ̶ one at each high school and one that splits her time between the two middle schools — at a cost of $283,000 annually that is paid for by the City of Southlake.
“Is there a funding source for this? Right now, I don’t know where it is,” states Ballew, referring to the $3.9 million budget deficit CISD is facing.
However, Terrell states that if it is determined a SRO is needed at every school, they will work together to make it happen.
“We have brought together a great team of thinkers who have an understanding of the issues. The next step is to communicate our plan to citizens and get them involved. It must be a community effort,” Terrell adds. “This is the single most important thing I will have focused on during my entire term in office.”
It is the right of every person to ask school and city leaders what is being done to protect our children, but a better question is, “How can I help?” While the solution is not simple, the overwhelming consensus is that this is a community problem and denial or looking the other way will not solve it. It’s time to act.
Tracy Southers, APR, is president of WordPlay, LLC, a public relations agency in Grapevine, Texas. The company’s services include consulting, copywriting, marketing communications, publicity, social media and special event planning. For more information, visit WordPlay Texas or call 817.756.1233.
Photo Credit: BluDoor Studios