Suicide Cluster Stuns a ‘Most Normal’ School

By Elizabeth Rose — June 18, 2019 4 min read

The suicides of the students, who were not close friends and who were in different grades, have shocked the quiet, working-class neighbor-hood around Bryan High School.

The 1,250 students at the school, described by the principal as “the most normal school in the world,” have reacted by pulling together, according to Ronald Burmood, the school district’s coordinator for personnel services.

He said grieving students are wearing yellow buttons that say: “We Care at Bryan” left over from a school event. Many have also worn handmade paper hearts that say “choose life"; the buttons were the suggestion of a local suicide-prevention authority, according to Mr. Burmood.

Getting ‘Back to Normal’

“We are trying to help the kids get back to normal, get back into the routine,” Mr. Burmood said. Classes have not been canceled, but students are allowed to come to the counseling office, where the school district has made six psychologists available to anyone who wants to come and talk.

And a psychiatrist from a local mental-health center last week talked to students in class over the intercom, Mr. Burmood said.

On Feb. 10, the Monday after the latest suicide, the local school board sponsored a community assembly at which a heated exchange took place between community members and Dr. John Riedler, a psychiatrist from St. Josephs Mental Health Center in Omaha.

John McQuinn, the school’s principal, said the debate was a result of the volatile situation rather than any real disagreement. “The public demanded answers to why those kids died, and there just aren’t any,” he said.

Mr. McQuinn said that some parents became enraged when Dr. Riedler spoke in technical terms that the audience could not understand.

Such tensions, said Mr. Burmood, persist in the wake of a community tragedy such as multiple suicides, and even a week of counseling and discussion may not be adequate to counter the disturbed feelings of students. Moreover, he said, teacher are receiving no extra attention to alleviate their stress in coping with student reactions.

The first student to commit suicide was Michele M. Money, 16, a junior who died Feb. 3 from an overdose of pills. The second, sophomore Mark E. Walpus, 15, died Feb. 4 from a gunshot wound. Thomas E. Wacha 4th, an 18-year-old senior, shot himself Feb. 7.

Of the two Bryan students who attempted suicide unsuccessfully, one tried the week before any of the students died and one after the first two.

According to Mr. McQuinn, the students who took their own lives were “normal kids, not really involved with drugs or anything.” There were reports that Thomas Wacha was somewhat of a loner. But one school official said it was “hard to tell because his funeral was jammed.”

Growing Problem for Schools

Coping with the impact of student suicides, the third-leading cause of death among adolescents, has become a worrisome problem for schools. A growing number have developed crisis teams to counsel the school community after traumatic events. (See Education Week, Nov. 13,1985.)

But little is known, suicidologists say, about what factors produce a cluster of suicides such as that experienced by Bryan High School.

Moreover, school officials are often “afraid to help when a student, teacher or principal dies, because they are afraid they will say or do the wrong thing,” said Sandra Fox, director of a Boston program that counsels teachers and school officials about how to deal with death. “They don’t know how to be helpful, yet they are in position to provide skills and knowledge to deal with a group of bereaved young people.”

Ms. Fox said her program suggests the following framework for dealing with a death involving a school:

  • Foster understanding: Adults should offer information that helps students make sense about what has happened. Ms. Fox said this can mean dealing with rumors about the event, as well as discussing the cause of the death.
  • Permit grieving: “Which is being both sad and mad,” said Ms. Fox. “The sadness is accepted but there is real anger, which may appear inappropriate.” She added that grief is closely related to guilt feelings about what students and teachers think they should have done for the person who committed suicide. Ms. Fox suggests discussing interpersonal responsibility and clarifying its boundaries.
  • Commemorate the loss: Ms. Fox said school officials are reluctant to commemorate suicide death because they want to avoid making suicide look heroic. She explained that schools can instead commemorate the individual’s life.

Lastly, she said, students may need to be told that it is all right to go on with their lives.

Mr. McQuinn concurred in that view last week. “Students are glad the cameras are gone and the halls are quiet again,” he said. The funerals have been held, and a week after the deaths the students held a pep rally. “It went fine,” said Mr. McQuinn, “the kids want life to go on--that’s the whole point.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 19, 1986 edition of Education Week

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