High school holds talk on suicide, bullying

Two recent student suicides leads to community discussion

MIDDLEBURG — The recent suicides of two Midd-West High School students was at the forefront of a discussion during a community meeting with panelists Tuesday night at the school.

The Midd-West High School auditorium held a scattering of parents, staff and community members throughout the room.

The school district offered the mental health awareness event as a way to help the community cope with the loss of the two students, which occurred within two weeks of one another, as well as tackle the issue of bullying.

Panelists included representatives from the United Way, children and adolescence agencies and Behavioral Health from Geisinger.

Dr. Tim Knoster of McDowell Institute of Bloomsburg University opened the evening and served as moderator. A community agency fair followed in the school’s cafeteria where resources for mental health and behavioral issues were represented.

“(Teen suicide) is a community problem. It is not unique to Middleburg or to the Midd-West School District,” said Joanne Troutman of the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way.

Troutman spoke about the importance of relationships, something echoed by every member of the panel at some point in the evening.

Tawnya Meadows, Co-Chief of Behavioral Health, Pediatrics, Geisinger Health System, gave statistics. She said though it is a difficult topic, teenage suicide is rare with 1,700 teenage deaths a year.

The peek age for suicide attempts is 13 years old.

Depression, however is more common.

Meadows said 20 percent of all teens will deal with depression. She then noted 50 percent of all teen suicides happen without any warning signs.

She gave three tips for parents if suicide is a concern for their teenager.

“If you have concerns about suicide, ask,” Meadows said, adding many adults are afraid to bring up the topic for fear they are giving their child the idea of taking his or her life.

Secondly, she said, if a teen mentions wanting to take his or her life or expresses depressed feelings, take it seriously. Meadows said when the teens express those feeling, do not judge him or her. Let them know you hear them and want to help.

Audience members were able to write down questions for the panel to answer. Topics ranged from how to talk to their children about suicide, to alcohol and drug availability.

One person asked if the district could have mental health discussed in its curriculum. Panelists encouraged the parents to go to their school board and request it.

The district is maintaining a proactive stand on the issue of bullying. Midd-West Superintendent Richard Musselman said the “last couple of weeks have been the worst experiences” he has had in his administrative career. Musselman said when the school district declared they needed help, “So many swept in.”

Musselman listed the ways the school district has been working to help students before these two incidents occurred. He mentioned clubs geared toward building peer relationships, as well as the district’s efforts in starting with the youngest age groups and helping them with coping skills. Musselman went on to list anti-bullying assemblies and mentoring programs and referrals for students to area agencies. Staff members, he said, have also been trained in suicide prevention.

Musselman addressed the manner in which the district handles bullying.

“We want you to know we focus on every issue reported to us. We have forms for students to fill out. We do an investigation and take action,” Musselman said.

The superintendent noted that often parents say “the school doesn’t do anything,” but he reminded the audience that by law, schools cannot share personal information of other students including how they are disciplined. Because the discipline cannot be shared publicly, parents assume “nothing” is done, Musselman said.

After the second suicide occurred, Musselman said, “Several students were upset and angry.”

Some chose to sit on the steps near the cafeteria in protest.

Michael Stepp, 17, was the student who organized the “sit-in,” and attended Tuesday’s meeting with his parents Michael and Deanna.

Michael Stepp said he did not know the first individual, a tenth grade student, who took his life, though it bothered him. Stepp was a friend to the eighth grade student who took her life two weeks later.

He knew she was struggling with bullying and he was angry that her life was lost because she was hurt on a daily basis at school.

Deanna Stepp said she has tried on many occasions to communicate with administrators in the district about the bullying concerns her son and others have endured and felt she was not taken seriously.

“I will tell you though, there are some wonderful people here,” she said, referencing a guidance counselor who “listens to parents and students and takes it to heart.”

Jay White is a father of two children in the district. He said he chose to attend the meeting because “I felt like someone pulled out my heart hearing we lost two kids within two weeks,” one of whom was a classmate to his daughter.

“The main focus is we have to be proactive as parents. I commend the school for doing what they’re doing here.”

Judge Michael Sholley was a panelist on behalf of Snyder-Union Counties Children’s Roundtable.

“There is no real answer in how to deal with it,” he said in terms of bullying and mental concerns, “You talk to them. You just do it. Start talking about the weather, your dog, whatever. Just start talking,” he said.

Later the judge added, “If you’re not talking to your kids, you may not like who they are.”