It was a short note. “I am sorry, I am not dropping out but I won’t be coming back to school, thank you for everything, I’m sorry.”
But it activated a red alert at the school, immediate calls to family, and a staff member dispatched to do a home visit.
The student had overdosed on their prescription meds, quaffing the whole bottle. They were found in time and are recovering.
The signs of distress are easy to miss. I have missed them myself before. But this time we got it.
These are the real stories of our schools and children.
Sadness, depression, mental health struggles and hopeful recoveries. Though they often don’t end happily.
- Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (2013 CDC WISQARS)
- More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
- Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
- Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs
This highlights the need for attuned staff that can read between the lines of a muffled cry for help. Who take time to understand what this child is trying to say even when they don’t write the words.
One of my most painful and enduring stories is the cry I missed. It’s hard to even write about it years later. He was one of my favorite kids, forged in extreme hardship…extreme hardship. He had been expelled from a District school for pulling a knife on a child who was harassing him about his murdered mother. And our charter embraced him.
He was one of those kids with a pure heart, you wonder how he maintained it given everything he had been through, but there was an earnestness to this child that is usually suffocated, that breathed large. But he had learned some bad habits, and after long deliberations we moved him to another building, and another class.
He didn’t do well there, a couple of times, I was called as the resident lawyer to help him negotiate cop problems. And back then they were just waiting for our kids—they had these unmarked cars and they would just watch the kids and note who they hung with and assume they were gang affiliated.
He took his own life that summer, cut his wrists and hung himself to be sure.
We missed the signs, the muffled cries, that went silent. The screams that he never released.
I am sad, but I always think of that child, and in his community the beliefs are not so much that people pass from this world, but that the ancestors are with us.
And when I am tired, sick and tired, frustrated, or just want to do something easier, I know this child is sitting over my shoulder and hoping that I do better. That I listen more, that I am more empathetic.
And I am listening, and while it’s deeply troubling to see the pain that these kids hold, we are doing better. And at least in this case we heard the cry before it was too late. I just hope we can all be better listeners going forward.