Smith-Cotton suicides bring awareness to mental health, bullying


Grace Vance

The reaction

“Get rid of Norton! Get rid of Norton!”
A sign in the crowd reads, “Kids’ lives matter.”
One may infer this situation is a gathering protesting a new bill or a policy. This was, however, the scene of a parent and student gathering turned protest in front of Smith-Cotton High School located in Sedalia, Mo.
The crowd of roughly 200 were instead raising their concern and anguish about the four student deaths in the school district since January 1, 2016, three of which were a result of suicide, according to Fox 4 News.
Some parents and students claim the suicides occurred because of a toxic bullying environment at Smith-Cotton. This group blamed principal Wade Norton for negligence regarding student support at the school.
While no such scene has invaded Columbia, Missouri, Director of guidance at Rock Bridge High School Betsy Jones said the counseling department here at RBHS is well aware of the concerns of causes of teen suicide. Her department deals with students who have “suicide ideation,” or thoughts of suicide, on a weekly basis. She said trauma from past experiences outside of bullying, is usually the cause behind students’ contemplation of suicide in the cases she deals with.
“We’ve saved several students’ lives this year already just based on either student tips or information from the student themselves. It’s a very troubling concern. I’m consulted on almost every case where we have a student who is suicidal. I would have to say that the majority of our cases, the students are not suicidal based on bullying, which is the perception in Smith-Cotton,” Jones said. “I can’t say that a student’s depression might not be related to their addiction to social media and collecting their self-worth … through social media rather than through human contact, but I can say that ours has not been related to situations of bullying here at school. I’m not saying that bullying doesn’t exist, I’m just saying that the cases that we’ve had this year have not necessarily been related to bullying.”

The response

RBHS principal Dr. Jennifer Rukstad said that while there have not been any suicides from enrolled students in recent years, she said the administration and staff’s priority is always students’ safety when it comes to threats posed to themselves or others.
“If there is imminent danger, we have to first determine that everybody is safe right now. That’s our first action. So if something’s happening at school, and if it’s a response to cyberbullying [or bullying,] we don’t care right then,” Dr. Rukstad said. “We need to make sure that that student is safe; then we start to investigate, ‘Where did this come from? What are the factors that have put the student in the unsafe situation?’ There are all kinds of different actions, but investigation is the first thing after the student’s safety is determined.”
RBHS crisis counselor Lesley Thalhuber said there are many things Columbia Public Schools (CPS) does to help students at risk of committing suicide, such as anti-bullying curriculum and other mental health awareness events like Red Ribbon Reality Week.
“I think schools definitely take [suicide and mental health] seriously. I know in the advisory curriculum, [in] both of the middle schools and high schools levels, there are topics such as suicide prevention, mental health topics [and cyberbullying discussion], and that whole bullying piece is a part of that,” Thalhuber said. “I really like to focus on kindness, too, as part of the antidote for the bullying [and] pushing people to be kind and giving that some more power. I think the B-word, the bully word, gets a ton of power, and I’d like to see words like kindness get more power because it’s very powerful. It’s a thing we can all be actively doing to keep each other cared for.”

Help from the community

In addition to the work she does every day with students, Thalhuber also helped create the student-run Hope club that started last fall. She said the club works to increase student awareness of the suicide hotline number, as well as promote community events like the Out of the Darkness walk to raise money for suicide prevention.
“[In] the Civics project they do at the end of the year in the freshman Civics class, a group came up with the idea that there’s kind of a hole here in terms of any club addressing mental health awareness and suicide prevention, so they wanted to create something like that, and one of those students, [Kayla West,] came back their sophomore year and said, ‘I really want to do it. Not just for a school project, I really want to do it,’” Thalhuber said. “So she did it; she got the signatures, she got approved by Student Council, and they’ve been able to do some really, really cool stuff in positive mental health strategies, like one was, ‘Keep calm, make art,’ which was really fun after school. It’s kind of a small but mighty club is kind of how I describe them as when people ask.”
The relationship between peer behavior toward one another and mental health is also apparent around the world, with a recent review of studies from 13 countries finding signs of a connection between bullying, being bullied and suicide, according to studies from the Yale School of Medicine.
In CPS, the Boone County Schools Mental Health Coalition (BCSMHC) has made other efforts to fill the “hole” of mental health analysis by recommending CPS students and teachers fill out their Early Identification Checklist to find students who need further help.
“[The BCSMHC] thinks that [taking the survey three times per year] is how many times the data checkpoints need to happen to get valid information over time to track progress, especially because the questions that [are] asked are tracking behavior and thoughts and feelings over one month,” Thalhuber said. “I think there are some of us who think two times a year might be more acceptable in terms of all the demands that teachers and students have here, but it’s not our call, so that is something we’ve requested. But they have people with PHDs who think this is where we needed to start, so we were totally willing to try it their way. School counselors have been able to really identify some people who struggle internally who otherwise would’ve kind of flown under the radar. I’m really thankful for that, and I hope that students are answering those checklists honestly.”
[quote cite=”Lesley Thalhuber”]I really like to focus on kindness, too, as part of the antidote for the bullying [and] pushing people to be kind and giving that some more power. I think the B-word, the bully word, gets a ton of power, and I’d like to see words like kindness get more power because it’s very powerful. It’s a thing we can all be actively doing to keep each other cared for.[/quote] While Jones said the lack of suicides from CPS students is a good thing, she said on average, three to four students a week come into guidance concerning suicide ideation. She said even though material discussed in a counseling session is confidential, she does have to act if what a student says poses a threat to themselves or others.
“If through a counseling sessions with me, you reveal that you are suicidal, then we require that you go and get assessed by a medical professional. So we partner with the parents and if the parent is not reachable or the parent is not reasonable about that partnership then we sometimes engage the school resource officer. The school resource officer can take a suicidal person into custody and transport them to the hospital,” Jones said. “If you’re a minor, you can’t be admitted into the hospital without your parents, so we have to partner with the parents. Safety is our number one goal in terms of that, so we make sure that students are assessed and getting the appropriate treatment. And really depression, which sometimes leads to suicidal ideation, is all treatable, so we have to address it in that way. You wouldn’t ignore a broken arm, we’re not going to ignore a depressed person who is suicidal.”
Missouri state law requires that the district have a mechanism for bullying reporting. Thus, the law requires staff to report bullying within two days, and gives the school 10 days to investigate. Dr. Rukstad said RBHS investigates all reports and that efforts within CPS and RBHS that the public eye does not usually see is part of how she believes the district has prevented suicide so far.
“As a principal, I am prepared any day for someone to tell me one of our students has committed suicide. I don’t want that to happen, but I am very aware that threat is always there,” Dr. Rukstad said. “We don’t ever want to have that call, but I know that it can happen, and for Sedalia to have to deal with three of those this year is unfathomable. It’s awful, and it’s awful for their staff, it’s awful for their students, it’s awful for their community. Our people work really, really hard to prevent it. Are we doing enough? Probably not, but we don’t have any [suicides thus far.] I hope that doesn’t change, and we are going to keep working to make sure it doesn’t change. There’s a lot going on that people don’t see to make that number stays at zero.”
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or call 911 for emergency services.