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After six Woodson High suicides, a search for solace and answers
Woodson High students pause for a moment of reflection on March 18 at the school’s football stadium in Fairfax. (Chad Bartlett/For The Washington Post)
The final evening of Jack Chen’s life was indistinguishable from many others. The sophomore returned home from school, ate dinner with his mother and retired to his room. His mother asked him to turn out his light at midnight.
Inside his bedroom, anguish gnawed at him, a darkness invisible to friends and family: He maintained a 4.3 grade-point average at one of the area’s top high schools, was a captain of the junior varsity football team and had never tried drugs or alcohol.
But that hidden pain drove Jack from his Fairfax Station home early the next morning — Wednesday, Feb. 26. The 15-year-old, who pestered his father to quit smoking and wear his safety belt, walked to nearby tracks and stepped between the rails as a commuter train approached.
The train tracks are seen last month near where Jack Chen ended his life. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
A memorial wreath and flowers are seen where Jack Chen ended his life. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
His death is one of six apparent suicides at Fairfax’s W.T. Woodson High School during the past three years, including another student found dead the next day. The toll has left the school community reeling and prompted an urgent question: Why would so many teens from a single suburban school take their lives?
County officials say they do not believe the deaths are directly connected, and experts say that suicides among teens occurring in such a short span are extremely rare.
Students have cried openly in Woodson’s hallways while teachers have tried to show resilience. Frustrated parents have asked the Woodson leadership and school system administrators for answers while wondering whether the school’s high-pressure, high-achieving culture could be playing a role.
“A loss like this cuts a deep wound. It persists. It lingers. It’s very slow to heal,” said Steve Stuban, whose son attended Woodson and committed suicide in 2011. “I have no idea what causes this to occur with increased incidence. All I know is it seems it’s occurring more at Woodson than any other place in the county.”
Steve Stuban is seen at the grave of his son, Nick, a Woodson High School student who took his life in 2011. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
In interviews, parents of five of the six Woodson teens who apparently took their own lives said their search for answers is never-ending. The Washington Post generally does not identify youths suspected of killing themselves, but the families agreed to speak to The Post about their children to illustrate how teen suicide has profoundly affected their lives.
Ivy Kilby’s 15-year-old son Cameron committed suicide on Aug. 4, 2012, a month before he was supposed to return to Woodson for his sophomore year. As a mother who has faced the grief that follows the death of a child, she said that parents should talk to their children about suicide and mental health before it’s too late.
“I never had a conversation with my kids until that happened to us,” Ivy Kilby said. “I hope every parent has a conversation with their children to ask them how they are doing mentally.”
A search for answers
Jack Chen spent his final hours writing a note. He loved his family and friends. He had dreams of being a computer science professor and having four children. But at 15, he “couldn’t keep doing this.”
“There is too much stress in my life from school and the environment it creates, expectations for sports, expectations from my friends and expectations from my family,” Jack wrote. He ended with a simple: “Goodbye.”
Jack’s death and the loss of five other students have reverberated within the community; more than 1,000 Woodson parents, teachers and administrators flooded into the school’s auditorium on a recent night trying to make sense of it all. The suicides have been especially baffling because many of the teens did not seem to exhibit the factors that would put them at risk. They had good grades, stable families and excelled at sports.
Fairfax County School Board member Megan McLaughlin, whose Braddock district includes Woodson and whose two sons attend the school, said talking about teen suicide is no longer taboo, and the school has moved quickly to talk to students about depression and self-harm.
“We absolutely have a responsibility to examine this as closely as possible to understand why this has continued to happen in one particular high school at this rate,” McLaughlin said. “It’s simply too high.”
Many wonder if there is a common thread. A number of parents and students said they worry about the fierce competition for limited spots in the state’s prestigious public university system.
Though teen suicide has dropped since its peak in the 1980s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fairfax saw 10 youths die by their own hands in 2013, a five-year high. At Woodson, it is an unavoidable subject.
Karen Garza, Fairfax County’s public schools superintendent, said that she encourages students, teachers and parents to talk to one another if they need help. On May 17, the school system plans to host a countywide event that will focus on mental health. “We are all profoundly saddened by the untimely deaths of our students, and our thoughts remain with the families and friends impacted by these losses,” Garza said.
Two suicides at Woodson in 48 hours marked the second time this year that has happened at a Fairfax County school. County officials said two Langley High School students committed suicide in January within a day of each other, though investigators also said those deaths appear unrelated. The Langley suicides deeply affected the close community in McLean, and the recent losses at Woodson stoked old memories among the student body.
In January 2011, 15-year-old Nick Stuban, a sophomore and rising star on the Woodson Cavaliers football team, committed suicide after he became mired in school discipline hearings for buying synthetic marijuana.
“There are many things that play into an individual’s decision to take their own life, and trying to grasp at understanding that is very difficult,” said his father, Steve Stuban. “You’re left with the why, the why did this occur, and a sense of guilt of ‘what could I have done?’ ”
Steve Stuban spends a moment at the casket of his son as the family of Nick Stuban lays him to rest on Feb. 10, 2011, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Family members make their way past the casket as the family of Nick Stuban lays him to rest on Feb. 10, 2011, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)
Cameron Kilby, a Boy Scout, acolyte at his church and sophomore cross-country runner at Woodson, took his life in the late summer of 2012.
A few months later, senior football player Bryan Glenn disappeared one day in October. He planned to attend the upcoming homecoming dance and had ambitions of serving in the military as a helicopter pilot. He was found dead a week later in a Fairfax park a mile and half from Woodson.
Then in April, 17-year-old junior Ethan Griffith jumped off a parking garage at the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College.
Each of those tragedies was reawakened when the public address system at Woodson crackled to life during sixth period on the day Jack Chen died. Senior Killian Rodgers said he and his classmates froze. They sensed the announcement that was coming, after so many other deaths.
“The color just drained out of their faces,” Rodgers said.
There was little respite. Students were notified two days later of the junior who took his life after Jack. Many were attending a region semifinal basketball game in Woodson’s gym. The news rippled through the crowd as students checked their phones.
“Slowly, people just kept breaking down,” said Bailey Bishop, a senior.
Sydni Weissgold, 16, a sophomore, said students and teachers have been reaching out to one another — little acts of reassurance to get through this difficult time and to weave a safety net for any other vulnerable students.
Weissgold said friends are sending texts saying “I love you.” She was approached recently by a boy from her history class she rarely spoke with. He gave her a thumbs up and asked whether she was all right.
“It’s hard to make sense of it all,” Weissgold said. “You try to stay strong and stay together.”
A knock at the door
Jim Chen is at a loss. When he runs through the events of the days and weeks leading to his son’s death, he finds nothing amiss. No clue to what he overlooked.
There were no signs of depression. No outbursts. No withdrawal. Jack had maintained all A’s, except for a single B-plus in a math class. He rowed on the crew team and was a hurdler on the track team. The father and son had made plans to practice driving.
Then, on that chilly February morning, there was a knock at the door. Jack was dead, a police officer told his parents. “I said, ‘This is impossible,’ ” Chen recalled. “ ‘He was a happy boy.’ ”
Jim Chen speculates that Jack’s skin medication, which can cause depression, might have played a role. “There was something going on in his mind, but he didn’t give me any chance to do anything,” Chen said. “My heart is aching.”
That same anguish has gripped five other Woodson families.
Rosella Glenn, Bryan Glenn’s mother, said Woodson doesn’t have the tools to help students with mental health issues. “How many more need to die before somebody wakes up and realizes there is a situation that warrants bringing in more resources to fight this problem?” Glenn said. “I’m tired of seeing flowers and signs around Woodson.”
A 2010 photo of Bryan Glenn with mother, Rosella Glenn, during Christmas in Nuremberg, Germany. (Courtesy of the Glenn Family)
The Glenns said that in the weeks before their son died, he was “at the high point” of his life. There was no explanation for his death, the Glenns said, and they find his suicide hard to accept.
“People need to ask more questions about why this is happening,” Rosella Glenn said. “It could be their kids next.”
Gayle Griffith lost her husband, Matthew, in 2011, when he died of a heart attack. Less than two years later, her son Ethan committed suicide.
The warning signs didn’t appear obvious at first, Griffith said. A straight-A student and Woodson track athlete, Ethan’s slipping grades appeared to be fallout from his father’s death. He was known to help his friends work through math homework assignments in the cafeteria during lunch, and he wore outlandish costumes during spirit days at the school.
“He tried to be friends with everyone,” Griffith said.
Ethan attended a suicide prevention seminar at Woodson last April, Griffith said, where he heard a nationally renowned speaker, Jordan Burnham, speak to teens about how he had leaped off a building and survived. Burnham uses his own cautionary tale to promote mental health awareness.
Days later, Ethan climbed to the top of a parking garage in Annandale and jumped to his death.
Griffith had been trying to get her son professional help. The Monday before he died, she arranged for a Woodson psychologist to evaluate him, but the meeting was canceled at the last minute for an emergency, Griffith said. That meeting was rescheduled for Wednesday; Ethan killed himself that Tuesday night.
In January, nine months later, Griffith was rummaging through her son’s closet and opened up his backpack. Inside, she found a paper Ethan had written for an Advanced Placement class a few months before he died. He had written that he felt depressed and had suicidal thoughts.
“The teacher didn’t follow their protocol,” Griffith said. “If a kid says he’s thought about it or writes about it in a paper, they are supposed to call their team of counselors. But that never happened.”
Griffith said she hopes that her son’s writings can serve as a tool to help teachers identify warning signs in students’ work.
The county’s assistant superintendent for special services, Kim Dockery, who met with Griffith, declined to comment on Ethan’s case but said the administration is planning to have all county teachers review their training for detecting the signs of suicide.
Other families believe the school is doing the best it can. Cameron Kilby’s parents credit Woodson Principal Jeff Yost and other school officials for their efforts to promote suicide awareness.
“It’s an extremely hard issue,” Jim Kilby said. “For folks who aren’t affected by it, the tendency is to look for a discrete cause. Having wrestled with this for a while, I don’t think it’s quite so simple.”
The Kilbys said that before their son died, teen suicide had never crossed their minds. Now teen mental health is a subject that the Kilbys think about often.
“For folks that aren’t connected to suicide, it is a harsh, jolting fact when this happens. It is for us, too, but it’s never too far away from our thoughts,” Jim Kilby said. “We never stop thinking about it.”
At Woodson, the latest deaths have revamped efforts in the school community to promote well-being. A student group recently started stress-reducing yoga sessions after class, and other teens have been trained as mental health first responders. In recent years, the administration has moved to restore the number of school psychologists and social workers lost during recession-era budget cuts.
Fairfax County high schools have begun posting suicide and depression hotline information on the front pages of their Web sites. School officials said the recent efforts already have had a positive effect: a number of students expressing self-harming feelings have reached out to the school system for help .
Yost said that Woodson’s challenges addressing mental health concerns among the student body are not unique.
“Every school has this issue,” Yost said. “Every school has to go about fixing it.”
Woodson High School, in Fairfax County, has experienced an unusually high suicide rate in the past several months. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer for the American Foundation for Suicide, said the number of suicides at Woodson is high, even if there appears to be nothing linking them. She said such suicide clusters could have very real effects on other students.
“The thing we are always concerned about is the phenomenon of suicide contagion,” Moutier said. “Youths are more susceptible to contagion, and research has found that 2 to 5 percent of teen suicides had a possible role of contagion. It is a vast minority, but it doesn’t mean the phenomenon doesn’t exist.”
Experts said the problem is particularly acute in the age of social media. Woodson teachers have observed students retweeting and favoriting the final messages from Jack Chen and the junior who died after him, rapidly exposing hundreds of students to the tragedies in an unfiltered way.
Maddie Schuler, Jessica Schuler and Karly Glasscock, all W.T. Woodson High School students, carry a box overflowing with pledges linked to form a chain on March 18 at the school’s football stadium. The paper chain will be displayed inside the school to symbolize the support of the W.T. Woodson student body, faculty and community. (Chad Bartlett/For The Washington Post)
In a 2011 survey of Fairfax County youths, the most recent data available, approximately 16 percent of Fairfax eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders — a total of 4,840 students — considered suicide. A much smaller percentage of the student population — but more than 1,150 teens — admitted attempting suicide that same year, according to the survey.
But the numbers can’t capture the impact of each death. More than 500 people turned out for Jack Chen’s funeral. Friends produced a video showing old family photos of Chen frolicking with his sister, holding a football and playing piano.
“He was a great guy with all the smarts and talent to have a bright future,” Jim Chen said. “It’s unbelievable.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.
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