Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Tragedy and closure

OK, so I'm trying to teach my fifth grade students and one boy is giving me a hard time. I scold him, he gets upset and says he going to kill himself. I send him to his gym class. The next thing I know, he is found dead hanging in the boy's bathroom.

OK, so I'm the police officer called to the scene where the boy was found. I'm taking statements, I'm looking at the torn clothing from where the boy hung from a hook in the stall and a footprint on the toilet seat. I give my information to the medical examiner who determines that the boy committed suicide. Case closed.

Looks like a few juicy bits for the next blockbuster detective series, doesn't it? Only thing is that this really happened, in a suburb of Chicago, in the first part of 2009. And, although the information is factual, the explanations are most likely fictional.

OK, so the teacher has been placed on administrative leave. Probably because he/she  did not follow proper procedures and, basically, they need someone to burn at the stake. But let's look at what really happened, thoughtlessly or not.

Most people who find an unresponsive person and do not panic, will attempt to render lifesaving measures such as checking, pulse, respiration and rending CPR. They will not think about the fact that they may be compromising a crime scene and destroying evidence.

Other people who have responsibilities for supervising and monitoring children will immediately go into CYA mode - "I just turned my head for a second," "He said he'll be right back," or "I was attending to a more urgent matter."

How about the commonly held ideas about suicide such as a person will make several statements and even attempts before they successfully kill themselves, they will choose a location where they will, more than likely, not be found until it is too late, they will attempt less painful methods first and they may have had a plan and let someone else know.

Or even the school's responsibility to respond to a crisis. If anyone says they will kill themselves, act like it. Call an emergency contact person, place them in a secure location with constant line-of-sight monitoring, engage the emergency response plan that is in place.

A tragedy such as this creates many more questions than answers? Why were officials so quick to determine that this young boy killed himself? Because it is easier. Easy for the police because they can close their investigation. Easier for the school because they can chalk it up as another troubled kid from an unconcerned family. But there is nothing easy about sending your child to school in the morning and identifying his body that evening because of gross negligence.

Other thoughts to consider, most ten year old boys are not impulsive enough to decide to kill themselves while in line for gym class, not inventive enough to think of the hook in the bathroom stall, not strong nor agile enough to lift their weight on to the hook and not resolute enough to stay on the hook until they pass away.

The family said that he had plans for the future, was a happy child and got along well with others, all contra-indicators for suicidal behaviors. They did report that he was being bullied at school which is not difficult to believe. All school districts have policies against bullying but most do not follow them, at least most of the ones that I have worked with. Many children in psychiatric crisis at school have been provoked by bullies and we end up addressing the symptoms and not the source.

If he had said he would kill himself, where was it documented? Teachers know to keep anecdotal records, especially for students with behavior learning challenges and parents who want proof of their child's disruptive behavior. Why was he not held in the classroom or taken to someone's office for constant monitoring and observation? Did someone call his parent about what he said? Unfortunately, they may have waited and called to say what he did.

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