Perry Local School District addresses ‘suicide contagion’

MASSILLON, Ohio-- The Perry Local School District in Stark County is mourning the loss of another student to suicide in what health officials call a "suicide contagion."

School officials held a news conference following the latest death at the Perry Township Police Department Friday afternoon. Superintendent Scott Beatty, joined by area health professionals, was clearly emotional as he shared the news.

"We will not give up. We will continue to fight for our young people, our families and our community," Beatty said.

Last week, a student at Edison Middle School died and three students in the district took their own lives in the fall. School officials said six current or former students have committed suicide this school year. They have all occurred outside of school hours.

Although some parents and Perry students have suggested that bullying played a role in some of the suicides, Perry Township police maintain they have not found any evidence of that.

"I think it's important to reveal that these investigations are identifying multiple factors, not a singular issue and a factor that has not come up in these investigations is in fact bullying," said Police Chief Michael Pomesky.

"Suicide is not caused by one particular event," said Carole Vesely from the Crisis Intervention and Recovery Center.

She said family conflict or a break up can contribute, adding parents need to realize how traumatic these things are for teens.

"The day a person takes their own life is not the first time they have thought about suicide," Vesely said.

She described this recent wave of student deaths as a "suicide contagion." According to Vesely, there is not enough research to determine what exactly causes a contagion.

"Simply being a teenager, simply going to the same school may be the connection. If we knew more, we could be able to address it more. But the bottom line is, when we are dealing with a contagion, we have to identify how do we start looking at potential suicides or risk factors that might pull young people in," Vesely said.

Parents should look for changes in behavior, including quitting activities, or different sleeping and eating habits. The district is even teaching students how to recognize these changes in their friends and encouraging them to report them to an adult.

But being aware of risk factors isn't enough. Vesely said, while it may be difficult, parents need to start a dialogue with children about suicide. It can start with this simple question, "Are you thinking about suicide?"

Perry Local Schools has implemented support programs, including adding two guidance counselors at the high school and using anti-bullying programs. The district also hosted three community meetings and group meetings with students.

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Superintendent Scott Beatty: “I’m a father of five, most importantly. That’s what makes this job so difficult.”

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Beatty says six current and former students have committed suicide since the beginning of the school year.

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The superintendent says there has been light during this tragedy, and that’s been the community coming together. 

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Beatty says there is no doubt in his mind that they have saved lives as well.

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“We will no give up. We will continue to fight for our young people and our families and our community,” Beatty says.

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Perry Township police say these investigations are finding a variety of factors in the suicides, but bullying has not been one of them.

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“Suicide is not caused by one particular event,” says Carole Vesely from the Crisis Intervention and Recovery Center in Stark County. Two big factors for teens are family conflict or a break up. But she emphasizes even young people don’t take their lives based on one thing. 

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Vesely calls this a suicide contagion. She says we need to look for teens withdrawing, first-time drug use, reckless behavior, eating and sleep changes.

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Vesely says this a time to look for risk factors, but it’s also time to talk about suicide. She says parents should ask the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?”

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Vesely says she realizes how difficult it is to start the dialogue with children. But she says she finds just asking the question will open them up.

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“We can’t address what we don’t know,” says Margaret DeLillo district counselor when asked if there is a commonality between the suicides.  

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Police say these deaths have happened outside of school hours. 

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DeLillo says we try to teach the students what to look for, but they have to tell an adult. “Keeping the secret among themselves is not helping,” DeLillo says.

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“Any major change in behavior is the key right there,” Vesely says. It might not be a sign of potential for suicide, but it’s means there’s a need to start a conversation.

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“The day a person takes their own life is not the first time they have thought about suicide,” Vesely says. She says shows like “13 Reasons Why” reinforces to young people that suicide is an option. She says she has a problem with shows that show suicide in such a graphic way.

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DeLillo on bullying: “Zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero occurrence.”

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Police say again that bullying has not been a factor in these cases.