Students and staff tell what happened inside Douglas high school
After a second Parkland shooting survivor died by suicide in a week’s span, Florida’s emergency chief is calling for the state Legislature to dispatch more mental health resources for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School community.
On Saturday night, a Parkland sophomore took his own life, according to Coral Springs police. A week before, a former student whose best friend died in last year’s massacre took her life.
“Now is the time for the Florida Legislature to help,” said Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s emergency management director and a former state representative from Parkland.
“Mental health is a bipartisan issue,” he posted on Twitter.
Meanwhile, local leaders are taking steps of their own.
On Sunday afternoon, more than 60 school, county, city, child services and law enforcement officials, as well as mental health specialists, teachers and parents, met for an emergency meeting.
Parents who attended the meeting said the Broward County School Superintendent’s Office is working to reach every parent in the district via text, email, social media and robo calls.
“They will be asking parents to take this issue seriously,” said Ryan Petty, father of Alaina Petty, a 14-year-old freshman who was one of 17 people murdered on Feb. 14. 2018. “Parents cannot be afraid to ask their kids the tough questions.”
Petty said the school district will be giving parents the “Columbia Protocol,” a set of six questions to ask their children. Based on their answers, they will be given several emergency resource options. Several nonprofits are also dispatching therapy groups that will offer free services.
“During the Spring break, I encourage you to take time to speak with your children every day. Dinners are a great time for family conversation,” said Superintendent Robert Runcie. “We need to remove the stigma from talking about suicide.”
Helen Aguirre Ferré, the communications director for Gov. Ron DeSantis’ press office, said the governor is aware of the reports of suicides and is monitoring the situation. DeSantis has established relationships with several parents who lost children in the shooting last year, and has had conversations with the families.
“He and the first lady are concerned,” Ferré said.
But the situation is, for now, in the hands of local officials, she said, and there has been no request for the state to intervene.
Before the state activates emergency resources, local leaders would have to agree they need the help.
Last year, after 17 people were murdered in the Feb. 14 shooting on the Stoneman Douglas campus, the state Legislature passed a gun-control and mental-health bill that restricted some sales of guns and accessories, gave the courts the ability to take guns away from people with mental health issues and set aside money to hire and train school faculty.
State Rep. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, said he would “be the first person to co-sponsor something to deal with mental health in our schools and our communities.”
Amid the new Parkland pain, Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the March For Our Lives, a student-led protest of the country’s gun laws that drew hundreds of thousands of people to Washington and to other marches around the world.
The news of the two suicides comes just as students are out of school this coming week for spring break, worrying some that students may not get the help they need..
Investigators told the Miami Herald that the male student died in “an apparent suicide” on Saturday night. He was in 10th grade and attended Stoneman Douglas last year at the time of the Feb. 14 shooting.
It isn’t known whether his death can be linked to the school shooting, police said. They did not release his name.
The death follows the suicide of a recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School graduate, Sydney Aiello, who took her life after being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office said Aiello died from a gunshot wound.
“How many more kids have to be taken from us as a result of suicide for the government / school district to do anything? Rip 17 + 2,” former Stoneman Douglas student and gun-control activist David Hogg said Sunday on Twitter.
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
You can also dial: 2-1-1 or 954-740-6731. If you prefer not to call, you can text “FL” to 741741 for a live counselor.
Ryan Petty, who has been in close contact with local and state officials, told the Miami Herald the student who died Saturday also died from a gunshot.
Petty founded a suicide prevention foundation called the Walk Up Foundation after his daughter’s death. He said “the issue of suicide needs to be talked about.”
“This is another tragic example,” Petty said, who has partnered with Columbia University and The Columbia Lighthouse Project for his Foundation.
Kelly Posner, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia and the founder and director of The Columbia Lighthouse Project, said the Columbia protocol — the series of questions that local officials are urging parents to ask their children — “is the most evidence-supported tool of its kind that anyone can use anywhere in the world to prevent suicide.”
“Suicide is the No. 1 cause of adolescent deaths. Fifty percent of suicidal people see their primary care doctor the month before they die,” Posner said. “This is an urgent memo, the Columbia protocol needs to be in everybody’s hands, this includes parents, the coaches, the peers, the janitors, the librarians. In the past, nobody knew what questions to ask and what to do when they got the answers. Now we know.”
The list of questions uses plain and direct language, which Posner says is most effective in eliciting honest and clear responses. For example, the questionnaire may ask:
“Have you wished you were dead or wished you could go to sleep and not wake up?”
“Have you been thinking about how you might kill yourself?”
“Have you taken any steps toward making a suicide attempt or preparing to kill yourself (such as collecting pills, getting a gun, giving valuables away, or writing a suicide note)?”
Based on the responses, the questioner can establish criteria or thresholds that determine what to do next for each person assessed like hospitalization, counseling, referrals, and other actions.
Posner, who was awarded with the Secretary of Defense medal for exceptional public service for her suicide prevention work in the Marine Corps, said only one percent of people who ask the questions end up with a high-risk response.
“We know, point blank, as clear as day, that these questions help identify people who are suffering in silence and will help us save lives,” she said.
Since the Valentine’s Day shooting traumatized an entire student body, students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School regularly report to trauma counselors after breaking down in tears. They panic when fire alarms drag on even moments too long. Reports of widespread absences are common.
As spring break starts, faculty at the Parkland school worry that their students may not be receiving the help they need away from campus. They also are concerned that recent changes at the school may be negatively affecting kids.
Grief therapists working with Parkland families mobilized Sunday to figure out the best way to provide help. They also are concerned that students will be off this week.
Professionals United for Parkland, a group of private trauma-trained therapists who are volunteering their services, told the Herald the “suicides were expected after the shooting’s one year anniversary.”
“These deaths could have been prevented. Contagion in high school suicidal behavior is common. We have to stop it now and draw attention to suicide prevention,” said Les Gordon, who sits on the board of the group and works as a trauma therapist in Boca Raton.
Gordon said the group’s Facebook Page is constantly publishing available resources and that the Coral Springs Museum of Art will be hosting a group of available therapists from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. this week.
The Broward County Resiliency Center at Pines Trail Park Amphitheater, will also have clinicians available from noon to 7 p.m. daily until April 1. Eagles’ Haven, 5655 Coral Ridge Drive, will be open as well.
“Our community needs to pull together in a cohesive manner. We pledge to provide resources, assist other organizations, make referrals for proper trauma treatment and to support the therapeutic community who are on the frontlines,” he said.
Greg Pittman, an American History teacher at Stoneman Douglas said the reassignment of the high school’s three assistant principals and a security specialist, administrators who were with the school during the mass shooting, has affected the mental health of the students who need help the most.
“The kids need help and many of them that do need help are not getting any,” Pittman said Sunday. “They want to talk to people that were there.”
Pittman, who taught Sydney Aiello, said he has spoken with students directly about their concerns over the changing structure of their school. He said more mental health resources may be needed.
“Many of them think that they don’t need help,” he said. “That only their friends who were there understand. More resources probably would help, but also the resources that knew them [are] leaving.”
During a meeting Friday between the district and the faculty, Pittman said Broward Chief Officer of School Performance and Accountability Valerie Wanza acknowledged it was a mistake to remove the administrators students had grown accustomed to seeing.
“I thought it was a mistake then and even more so now,” he said.
He said his students are under “tremendous pressure,” some having seen their friends die or seeing their bodies on the floor after the shooting.
Pittman, who was at the school during the shooting, regularly sees a therapist and takes medication for emotional distress.
“I didn’t witness it, but many of these kids had to witness their friends dying,” he said. “What they have seen, I’m concerned we’re gonna see more.”
On Twitter Sunday, Ryan Petty posted “17 + 2” with a breaking heart emoji, a somber reminder of the growing tally of the massacre.
“I’m afraid that Sydney did it, and now this other kid has done it...” Pittman said. “I don’t know how long it will take but we need more help.”
Miami Herald staff writers Martin Vassolo and David Smiley contributed to this report.