St. Clair R-XIII School District Superintendent Mike Murphy said his greatest concern following the tragic deaths of three high school students within the past seven or so weeks is the other students who continue to walk the hallways and sit in the classrooms within the four district schools.
Murphy led a community forum on Tuesday night in the high school gymnasium one day after a third teenager, identified as 16-year-old freshman Destiny Pearson, was found dead.
Pearson’s body was discovered in a home in Washington County, possibly in the southern portion of the Lonedell Lakes area over the Franklin County line, at about 8 p.m. on Monday night. Officials from the Washington County Sheriff’s Office would not return repeated calls from The Missourian to provide or confirm information.
Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and St. Clair Ambulance District personnel did say, however, that the death took place outside of their jurisdiction. They had no other details.
Several hundred area residents filled the lower level of the St. Clair High School gymnasium to attend the forum. It focused more on education and prevention even though several upset residents showed up to point fingers at the school district and its personnel.
The forum was scheduled for Nov. 13 shortly after the second SCHS student suicide occurred on Friday, Nov. 2. On Monday, Nov. 12, about two hours after Murphy sent a “phone blast” to parents and district staff reminding them about the forum, the third teenager was discovered.
“We’re concentrating on our students,” Murphy told The Missourian before Tuesday’s forum, which originally was scheduled to be in the SCHS cafeteria but had to be moved to the larger venue because of the attendance. “Unfortunately, we can’t know when the end to all this may occur, so I’m very concerned for our students.
“There are a lot of individuals doing some self-reflecting,” he said, adding that the mood at the high school has been “mixed” this week.
“We’re getting a lot of the ‘Why?’ questions,” the superintendent said. “The reactions levels are all over the place. Individuals are dealing with it differently. Our role is to provide the student population with some structure and some normalcy. Students have had different sets of needs, so we’ve tried to provide different levels of support and counseling.”
Murphy added that, “We’re all devastated with what’s happened, and our hearts go out to the families involved. ... It’s tragic in a singular sense. Now after the second and third event in a seven-week window, it’s really indescribable.”
About 30 trained adults were on hand at the high school on Tuesday as resources for students and staff. They included counselors from other area school districts as well as St. Clair and personnel from the Crider Health Center, Preferred Mental Health, Catholic Family Services, the St. Clair Ministerial Alliance and CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, an organization in St. Louis formed to help communities deal with adolescent depression and suicide. Many of them returned to be with students throughout the week.
During Thursday night’s R-XIII board of education meeting, Murphy reiterated a lot of the things he had said during the forum and had told The Missourian. He also said almost all of the students at SCHS had visited with a counselor at least once. Several have had more than one appointment.
Murphy said in all his years as an educator and administrator, “I’ve never dealt with anything like this.”
However, the superintendent said the district and community must come together and concentrate on ways to get through the situation and strive to do “everything we can to hopefully prevent it from happening again.”
“We have the opportunity to grow together as we move forward,” Murphy said.
To those who attended the forum, he said, “Our intent is to open some doors and see what we can do as a community to ensure our children are safe. We need to collectively unite and make sure this issue is in our past and not in our future.”
The series of tragic events began on Sept. 28 when Jordan Halmich, who was a 16-year-old junior, was found dead. On Nov. 2, Donna Jo Cooley, a 15-year-old sophomore, also was found deceased. Both were ruled suicides.
Investigations have led authorities to believe the three deaths do not appear to be related or “copy-cat” in nature. It also appears that the three teens were not close friends and were “not in the same circles.”
“Each incident seems to be in isolation of each other,” Murphy said. “Investigations in each instance, to the best of our knowledge, indicate many things seemed to be contributing factors that led to the decisions these students made. It’s tough to pinpoint one specific cause. But, it looks like there is no relation.”
Murphy said he wants his district personnel to be proactive instead of reactive in evaluating policies and procedures in place that focus on student safety in regards to bullying, substance abuse, social media and other potentially problematic situations.
“We already have good programs in place,” he said. “We have a longstanding tradition here of promoting self-esteem and strong academic behavior. We’re reflecting on the needs of our students to ensure we’re doing the best job possible.”
But, all of those programs will be reviewed, Murphy said, adding that the district currently has a no-tolerance bullying policy.
The bullying policy was discussed by the school board on Thursday night after it was the biggest complaint made by adults who attended the forum.
“We have 700-plus students in the (high school) building,” the superintendent said. “Three have chosen to do this. It’s a crisis and extremely unfortunate. But we have to grow together and move forward.”
Toward the end of the week, Murphy said district personnel have been analyzing possible next steps to take as well as a time line.
During the forum, Murphy spent the first half of the two-hour session focusing on resources available to adults and parents that focus on suicide education and prevention.
John Avery, a counselor with CHADS Coalition for Mental Health, was at St. Clair High School this week helping district students and employees deal with the deaths. He addressed the audience Tuesday night during the forum and focused on the telltale signs of an individual contemplating suicide.
He said his intent was to educate those in attendance about changes in an individual’s demeanor that may be signs of depression and contemplating suicide.
“We have the opportunity to make some changes here,” he said. “But only you can do it.”
Avery said about 90 percent of individuals who go through with committing suicide have some sort of mental illness with depression being the most common. He then listed several signs and symptoms. (See separate story.)
“If you see any of these changes in people, talk to them or seek help,” he said. “... Take any comments seriously. If someone talks about it, they may very well do it.”
Avery also said everyone needs to have a “trusted adult” in which he or she can go to during a time of need.
“This is very important,” he said.
Avery then addressed the tragedies themselves.
“When there is a series of crises, it can’t help but tear a community apart,” he said. “You feel a sense of helplessness and loss, and there are those who get so angry and those who say we can’t let this happen to my child.
“All of these are valid responses,” he said. “But to make a positive change you have to have a positive thought process. We can’t change what happened. We can’t go back. We can’t take away the pain. But what we can do is find ways so hopefully this doesn’t happen again.”
“To make it better, you have to work together. I don’t have the answers, but if you all work together, you will find the answers. The key is a positive attitude.”
He ended his message by saying, “If anyone needs help, there is help there for you. We all want to help. We will do everything in our power to help you.”
When the forum’s focus shifted to questions, most of the adults commented about bullying in the schools and how “nothing is being done about it.” Many were angry.
A few parents gave examples of their children being bullied at school or on the bus and that the situation is continuing. Some of the comments received cheers.
Others in the audience defended the schools and said the problems lie elsewhere, including discipline at home and taking God and prayer out of the schools.
Several times, Murphy responded by asking that parents “do not give up on us.”
“My call to you is to never give up regardless of the incident,” he said. “... The intent of tonight is to decide how to move forward and not speculate on the past.
“We will collectively work together on this. ... But I assure you that if we do not unite, our children could fail or we could fail our children.”