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Letter: School failed in its response to student suicide

A group of high school students made the three-hour trek from Bismarck to Fargo in order to attend the Summit to Stop Suicide, hosted by Senator Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. They were part of a peer group representing Century High School. The young group had first-hand experience of death by suicide—a classmate of theirs had been placed on life support back in May after an attempted suicide. Tragically, he died this summer.

I was able to discuss their loss with some of the students in a personal discussion at the end of the summit. They described to me what it was like for their first day back to school. What I heard made my jaw drop open in shock and disbelief. The student body was told they could not talk about or discuss the loss of their classmate-- or there would be consequences.

An email had been sent out to parents, who were to explain the ban to their sons and daughters. They could not wear bracelets or T-shirts to commemorate the life of their classmate nor would they be allowed to hold a memorial. One girl's shy sister "got caught" confiding to a friend of hers (about the lost classmate) and was reprimanded by her teacher. The students were told they could not even murmur the name of their lost classmate. As the students talked to me, their pain and confusion were evident on their young faces.

It was mentioned that maybe the ban was because the teachers were not trained on the topic. But really, how much training is needed to merely listen? That's really all they needed. To be heard. To be allowed to grieve. Together.

At the summit, we discussed the stigma of death by suicide. We discussed how isolation is one of the contributing factors. Then when Century High School had the opportunity to guide these students through this very personal tragedy—the adults blew it. Instead, they created isolation themselves. The big secret. The forbidden S word. Empowering it to hurt even deeper-- those suffering so great a loss already.

The folly of the ban became horrendously clear when during the last class period, one particular student did not reply, "Here." when his name was called. And all of the students were just too scared to say anything because they had been warned to keep quiet... about the classmate of theirs who was not coming back. Ever.

Stich lives in Fargo.