Is School Speaker's Talk Dangerous? Suicide-Prevention Workers Think So
The suicide death of a 12-year-old Ohio boy following a traveling evangelist's anti-drug and anti-suicide presentation at his school has raised questions about the validity of the speaker's program, which includes a tape recording of an actual suicide.
In Wooster, Ohio, and a handful of other communities across the nation where the Kansas-based speaker has appeared at schools recently, teachers and mental-health officials say the dramatic one-man presentation has upset many students unnecessarily and prompted a surge in calls to suicide-prevention hotlines.
And some argue that his religious orientation makes him an unsuitable speaker for public-school audiences.
The evangelist at the center of the controversy, Jerry Johnston, is one of a number of prominent preachers who have made youth issues their forte. Such speakers are known mainly in Southern Baptist circles and in the schools where they have spoken, receiving modest but generally favorable press attention.
But Mr. Johnston's techniques came into question in April when Dana Golub, a 12-year-old Wooster student, heard the evangelist's program at his junior high school, then went home and hanged himself.
Gary Porter, director of the Christian Children's Home, where the boy lived, said that "from what we can piece together," Dana told classmates after the program that he was going to hang himself when he got home, "but they laughed it off."
The suicide and the subsequent decision by two other school districts to cancel Mr. Johnston's program touched off a debate in the local newspapers about the evangelist's talks.
A Dramatic Style
Mr. Johnston stamps a message on every advertising pamphlet he sends to schools: Warning: It Has Been Determined That Listening to This Man's Message Will Change Your Life.
For the 26-year-old Kansan, who says he has spoken at 1,600 schools with his "LIFE" assemblies in the past six years, the "warning" implies that his message may help students turn away from drugs or alcohol, or reconsider a suicidal impulse.
In his 30-minute school assemblies, Mr. Johnston, who says he is an ''interdenominational" minister and was ordained in high school, tells his student audiences about case histories of drug and alcohol abusers and teen-age suicides, as well as his own experiences as a drug user.
The slim, blond evangelist has appeared at schools in 25 states; he and his staff run a well-organized show, complete with advance promotion.
In a letter to the local media before the swing through Wooster, Mr. Johnston's scheduling coordinator, Jeff Freeman, promised "a 30-minute expose on teen-age suicide ... with "an actual suicide recording of a young man during his address." The press packet included a letter from President Reagan praising the program's anti-drug work.
And a colorful pamphlet on the program, which does not mention Mr. Johnston's career as a minister, says that "Jerry Johnston is a man deeply concerned about today's youth. Because of his concern, Jerry currently travels over 100,000 miles each year, and has shared this powerful and positive lecture with more than 1.6 million junior- and senior-high-school students." He also speaks on television and radio, and plans to market a videotape and a book on youth suicide next year.
The pamphlet goes on to say, "This is the program that breaks beyond the borders of the typically entertaining, over-emotionalized, and all-too-often shallow approach to the massive problems of youth."
"It's not a Ph.D. textbook approach," Mr. Johnston said in a recent interview. "It's pragmatic--to get kids to stop and evaluate."
Although Mr. Johnston mentions at the beginning of the speech that "there are many causes for suicide besides drugs," he refers only to students who have committed suicide while dependent on drugs.
He ends his presentation with a tape recording made by a young boy, Dexter Gardner, as a suicide message to his parents. The last sound the audience hears is a gunshot.
Mr. Johnston obtained the tape from the National Child Safetyl in Michigan. H.R. Wilkin-son, president of the council, said the boy's mother made the tape available for the council to use as it chose.
Community members who are troubled by the evangelist's presentation attack it on a number of grounds.
Andrea Denton, education and prevention coordinator for Support Inc., a suicide-prevention and crisis-intervention agency for the Akron, Ohio, area, where Mr. Johnston spoke last October, said, "He really dumped people. He got them all churned up emotionally, then dumped them and passed out tickets to a huge pizza rally."
"It's something that's totally distressed our agency," she added. ''It goes against what we're trying to do. You can't stir up a subject, then leave everyone cold."
Ms. Denton said she had "no gripe with what Jerry Johnston is trying to do about drugs and alcohol, but as far as suicide, we'd like him to stay out of it, because he's totally mishandling it."
Audiences Too Large
James Miller, director of consultation, education, and prevention for the Wayne-Holmes Mental Health Center, which serves the Wooster area, said that he became concerned about the presentation after hearing it described by his staff.
"My first concern was that the audiences are too large," Mr. Miller said. "Specifically, speaking to large assemblies of 250 and up, it's difficult to respond to all students and make some sort of contact. We like to work with less--about 35. We're finding through student evaluations we're much more effective with smaller numbers of students."
Mr. Miller said another aspect of Mr. Johnston's style that concerned him was "the lack of real follow-up. He did not remain in the schools for any period of time. On several occasions, the children were simply dismissed directly to the buses, with no allowing for individual follow-up."
'Really An Impact'
Although Mr. Johnston does urge students to speak to a teacher, a counselor, or a member of the clergy, if they are feeling troubled, he acknowledged that he should contact local agencies in the communities where he speaks and should tell students about their services.
"People say one problem is that I am here, and then gone, and not around for the follow-up," he said. "One weakness is that I am really 'impact.' They respond to Jerry Johnston. So from now on, we will find the best local group around and really push them."
Mr. Johnston denied, however, that his speech could have had any influence on Dana Golub's decision to kill himself.
"People just don't decide to commit suicide in 30 minutes," he contended. "Dana was not just a typical American student. He was deeply troubled. His father killed himself, and his mother died when he was young."
Mr. Porter of the Christian Children's Home said, however, that although Dana's mother died of cancer when he was young, his father is still alive.
Mr. Porter said he believes the talk "either planted the seed or sure brought it to the surface."
"There may be feelings of a lot of individuals that come to the surface" during the program, he said of Mr. Johnston's presentation, "but there are not any statements on how to deal with it."
All 36 children at the home heard Mr. Johnston's speech, Mr. Porter added, and all 36 were shaken up by it.
Mr. Porter, who is also a minister, said that Dana was put in the home for youths "because he was having trouble" but that he was an intelligent boy who caused problems only once during his nine-month stay. Mr. Porter said the boy never talked about suicide to him.
One of Dana's teachers described the boy in a letter to the local newspaper as "a sensitive, bright, friendly, talented, troubled boy."
Increase in Attempts
There was also a marked increase in suicide attempts and threats after Mr. Johnston spoke in the Wooster area, said Susan Buchwalter, executive director of the Wayne-Holmes Mental Health center in Wooster.
"We average eight calls a week," she said. "In the 10 days after Mr. Johnston spoke, we had 50."
Ms. Buchwalter also said that although she does not believe Mr. Johnston's speech could be called the "cause" of the Golub youth's suicide, "there is a definite correlation." She added: "If people were experiencing high levels of stress before the talk, his visit might be the stimulus."
The Akron area also experienced a sudden increase in suicide attempts after Mr. Johnston spoke there last October. Deborah Gibson, director of social services at the Akron Children's Hospital-Medical Center, said the hospital deals with an average of eight attempts a month, and that after Mr. Johnston spoke in the area, there were "at least two times what we normally had."
However, Mr. Johnston's speech in the area coincided with a national television network's broadcast of Silence of the Heart, a movie about teen-age suicide. After the movie was shown, hospitals and suicide hotlines around the country reported an increase in suicide attempts and threats.
But Ms. Gibson noted that "we have had children come into the emergency room who took drugs, and they talked about the tape [of the Dexter Gardner suicide]. It was very upsetting to them."
'A Positive Thing'
Mr. Johnston responded that "it's not a negative thing but a positive thing when I come to an area and there are reports to the mental-health centers of kids thinking of killing themselves. It shows that kids are willing to talk. The fact that I bring this out is a unique component of my speech."
Jan Olds, coordinator of the adolescent suicide-prevention program of the Kansas City (Mo.) Association for Mental Health, said, "I don't think prevention is gained through sensationalizing. I see no point in what he's doing."
Ms. Olds, who said she has presented suicide-prevention programs in 17 school districts, said Mr. Johnston does not refer to the "warning signs"--including poor appetite, aggressive behavior, and isolation--that may let teachers and peers know that a student may be suicidal.
She also said the program does not take into account that some students in the audience may have lost a relative or friend to suicide, and that it therefore may have a strong negative impact on them.
Ms. Olds said that in every suicide-prevention program she has conducted in schools since Mr. Johnston's program, at least one person has referred to his program.
"Many were extremely upset by it, especially the gunshot at the end," she said. "It's so graphic. It's not healthy at all."
Michael Denton, a 17-year-old junior at Firestone High School in Akron, said that in his view the speech probably "doubled the emotions" the listener was already feeling.
"I think the talk just confused a lot of kids," he said, adding that he would have liked to talk to Mr. Johnston after the program, "but there were 50 kids up there and he only had 15 minutes."
On the other hand, Mr. Johnston's approach has been praised in dozens of apparently solicited letters to his organization from principals, many addressed: "To whom it may concern."
The prinicipal of the William Penn School in New Castle, Del., wrote, for example: "Jerry Johnston had the attention of the students more than any other assembly program I have seen in years. From what students have said, he really seemed to reach them."
But other principals say the program may not serve the best interests of their schools.
"I don't think you can instruct a kid about suicide in a 40-minute program," said Lewis Bevington, principal at Triway High School in Wooster, who cancelled an appearance by Mr. Johnston that was scheduled for several days after Dana Golub's suicide. Mr. Bevington said he had initially decided not to have Mr. Johnston speak at his school because the school has its own suicide-prevention program and "I was not keen about the program to begin with."
But during the recent spring break, he said, he received calls from parents in the community asking him to allow the program. "I know the church told people to put pressure on me," he said.
Mr. Johnston, who said he is a graduate of Christ Unlimited Bible Institute in Kansas, keeps religious references out of his school speeches for the most part, a videotape of a recent address indicates, but his visits are usually sponsored by local churches or Christian youth groups, interviews with church leaders suggest.
The churches present Mr. John-ston with an honorarium, which he said varies from locality to locality. Although most sponsoring organizations declined to disclose the amount, an official of the West Hill Baptist Church in Wooster said it gave him about $8,000 to $10,000 for holding revivals for one week--a sum that did not include the money paid by the schools. In addition to the honorarium, he charges schools $150--an amount he plans to raise to $250 in the fall--per talk.
Mr. Johnston said that his business, incorporated in 1979 as Jerry Johnston Ministries Association, grosses about $500,000 annually, and that he earns a personal salary of $45,000. In interviews, other evangelists who are doing similar work said their business and personal incomes are in the same range; none except Mr. Johnston said they charged schools for their appearances.
After his school speeches, Mr. Johnston said, he often invites students to a Friday-night rally held at a church, in which he discusses similar issues but "elaborates more on my faith." At the Friday-night rallies, he sells audio tapes of his LIFE lecture and other presentations for $4 each.
Mr. Wilkinson of the National Child Safety Council said he was not aware that Mr. Johnston was selling the suicide recording as part of a tape of his LIFE program.
The speaker's religious connection particularly outraged two Akron-area teachers, who wrote in the Akron Beacon Journal last month that "it is ironic that the public schools picked up his LIFE-assembly speaking tab, providing over 8,000 young minds [the opportunity] to attend the 'private evangelistic' rally."
After his school assembly, Mr. Johnston passed out free passes to a ''pizza bash" that was to be held at the Akron Baptist Temple. Thousands of students showed up.
Mr. Johnston said he planned to hold future rallies in "neutral auditoriums," not in churches. He also said he would no longer be sponsored by churches and would set up his own speaking engagements through his LIFE staff.
"This is a nonreligious, secular outreach," he said. "It is not a doctrinal point of view. I don't try to unethically use the public-school platform."
Nonetheless, some school officials are reconsidering their policies on such speakers. "I don't think anyone could say a child committed a suicide because of Mr. Johnston," said James Watson, superintendent of the Triway Local School District, "but we're really tightening the clamps on who speaks here. I think educators have an obligation to know whom they are exposing kids to."