Hastings responds to spate of deaths with talk, education

  • Article by: HERÓN MÁRQUEZ ESTRADA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2012 - 11:07 PM

Authorities have been scrambling to break a months-long string of suicides and rumors, which began after a fatal car accident.

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Friends and classmates gathered on Sept. 7 at the site where 16-year-old Maddy Sake was killed the day before when her car and a pickup collided near Hastings. A boy she had once dated hanged himself a month later; a second boy killed himself shortly after that.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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A series of deaths, including two teen suicides, has rocked Hastings High School and the broader community this fall, and authorities have raced to prevent more tragedy by holding suicide-awareness events, defusing rumors and knocking on doors to check on the welfare of children.

The high school's principal even posted an open letter on the district website about suicide awareness and about unfounded rumors of a suicide pact.

"We are sensitively planning for ways to further engage our students on the issue of depression, suicide warning signs and grief and rebuilding hope within our school," Principal Mike Johnson wrote in the letter.

The trauma for Hastings High School and the community began in early September with the death of 16-year-old Maddy Sake in a car crash.

A month later, a 17-year-old boy she had dated hanged himself. The anxiety level increased when, on the day of the boy's funeral, a second student hanged himself. A day after that death, a well-known 19-year-old former Hastings student was found dead in his dorm room at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Less than a week later, police said, a 46-year-old woman hanged herself in her home.

The cluster of deaths so close together had police, educators and mental health experts worried that the situation was on the verge of becoming a suicide "contagion."

"We were definitely worried about that," said Tim Collins, superintendent of the Hastings school district. "Has our fear subsided? No. We're still at an orange or red alert."

The alarm was raised by suicide-pact rumors that began on social media and at school shortly after the suicides of the two high school students.

"It was everywhere," Kyle Linscheid, the school resource officer at Hastings High, said of the rumor. "There probably wasn't a kid in the district who didn't know."

Hastings usually has fewer than five suicides a year, said Police Chief Paul Schnell. While investigators have not linked the four deaths, their proximity in time, manner, geography or social connections led authorities to worry that something was going on.

"It's a lot in one period of time," Schnell said. "To have this many [deaths] so close together, you begin to ask yourself if this is a trend."

That concern is what is driving Jeff Lucas to be so vocal in talking about the death of his 17-year-old son, Mitchell, who hanged himself Oct. 22.

"I don't want to hide from the truth of how Mitchell died," Lucas said recently. "Kids are still coming by the house nonstop. We are talking to them nonstop, trying to talk to them, even if they don't know what they are feeling."

Authorities on high alert

Even though police investigated and found the suicide-pact rumors unfounded, school and city officials remain on high alert as they try to figure out how to address the situation.

"I didn't get a sense that it was out of control," Linscheid said. "But there was a concern of how high a body count we were going to get of kids."

There was enough concern among city, school and police officials that mental health experts were contacted and brought in; a task force was quickly set up to address suicide, drugs and other such issues affecting the city's youth. And many people in Hastings started talking about suicide awareness and prevention among themselves and with their kids, according to police, educators and city officials.

Last weekend, more than 300 parents, students and community leaders walked or ran through downtown Hastings as part of a quickly organized suicide-awareness gathering.

A week earlier, about 250 parents and community members packed a town hall-style meeting at the high school to discuss talking with kids about topics such as suicide, depression and grief.

"Those are all good things," said Barry Scanlan, prevention coordinator of the Anoka-Hennepin school district, which had a similar situation with six student suicides in 2009-2010.

Scanlan said Anoka got past its situation by aggressively going after "the stigma of mental health" and encouraging kids to talk to adults if they see a friend who is sad or depressed.

"It's a matter of safety," said Scanlan, who has followed what has been happening in Hastings. "They've got to get all of their schools back to normal as soon as possible."

SAVE the children

In the month since the first suicide, the city and schools have called community meetings to answer immediate concerns. Police investigated rumors of kids who were sad, depressed or potentially suicidal and knocked on a number of doors to inquire about the safety of children.

Authorities also called upon the expertise of the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE) group to guide them.

"We need to continue to talk about these issues," Hastings Mayor Paul Hicks said. "We need to have an honest conversation. This is not something we are going to solve in a week or a week and a half. Our city is trying to heal."

Concerns about recent suicide attempts and deaths have also spiked in Carver County. A recently formed Mental Health Consortium sponsored a Nov. 17 forum on suicide prevention that attracted more than 100 parents and teens.

Driving the concerns were the deaths two months apart of two high school students in Norwood Young America earlier this year. The consortium plans to hold more events to help the community become more pro-active in addressing suicide and mental health issues.

SAVE's executive director, Dan Reidenberg, applauded Hastings' response to its situation: First calling attention to the issue and then trying to educate people. That was part of why SAVE put on the walk/run fundraiser, he said.

Reidenberg said that suicide clusters, while rare, do happen. And just because such a contagion starts in one demographic group, say with teenagers, that doesn't mean it can't spread.

"The message that was given out was 'If you need help, we're here,'" he said.

"Suicide is preventable. It's the most preventable death that there is."

Heron Marquez • 952-746-3281

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