Editor’s Note: Sensitive Content Warning. This is the first installment of a series relating to suicide, specifically suicide in young adults. Next week, we will focus on survivors and how they can begin to heal as well as talking with experts in the field regarding signs to look for and what can be done to help.
The news came as a shock to not only the students, but also to teachers, counselors and the Maple Valley community.
Within the last year, three deaths have rocked Tahoma High School and two people directly affected by the death of Garrett Sypole are trying to create a new resource for anyone struggling with suicide — whether you have suicidal thoughts or if you know someone who has died.
Garrett was going into his senior year in 2017 when he took his own life that August.
According to Laurie Sypole, Garrett’s mom, and Haley Armstrong, a current Tahoma senior, they and other students, who were close to Garrett, expected there to be talk about his death during the first day of school in September 2017, but there wasn’t.
“Initially, many of these kids were in my home day after day, after day. We were just gathering, supporting, loving, talking just the week before school started,” Laurie said. “(Students) made T-shirts with the ‘LiveforGarrett hashtag’ on it. They wanted to really honor and remember him the first day of school. When his name was not mentioned, when suicide was not mentioned, when it was not talked about or discussed, they were very upset and continue to this day to be angry about it.”
Laurie said she thinks the school did not bring in as many professionals as she thought they should have.
“I can say that at the time of Garrett, I don’t believe that there were a lot of mental health professionals that were brought in to help the students at the time, they were directed to go to their counselors,” Laurie said. “What we know — or what we think we know — is that there’s not a lot of training (with school counselors). There hasn’t been a lot of training in this kind of aftermath. So that’s clearly a need that needs to be discussed for the future, and it will be, but as it stands right now, I think that they (the district) are limited.”
One year later, after the wounds of Garrett’s death were starting to heal, a former Tahoma student, Kione Gill, killed himself Sept. 9.
Haley and Laurie thought the school would do something to honor him or at least talk about suicide the following Monday, but again, nothing was done by the school, they said.
Exactly one week later on Sept. 16, a current student from Tahoma, Kylee Snyder, killed herself.
Students noticed a big difference in how the school reacted following the death of Kylee.
Haley said the Monday after Kylee’s death, students got dismissed from class if they needed a break. They also got to go into a room and discuss how they were feeling or to just cry, she continued.
Haley also said some teachers played a Ted Talk about suicide prevention.
Confused, Haley, Laurie and others wanted to know why the school had not reacted the same way with Garrett or Kione’s death.
The three students knew each other, Kione was Garrett’s friend and Kylee was Kione’s girlfriend, Laurie said. But because Kione wasn’t a student, the school did not discuss his death.
After Kylee’s death, she continued, the principal sent all parents a letter reporting her death.
Sharon Wright, the chair of the counseling staff at Tahoma High School, said the reason the school did not do anything for the first two deaths is due to protocol.
“There is strict protocol (on) how you deal with a former student’s death and how you handle a current student’s death. The trauma that is impacted on a student walking into a classroom with an empty chair, that is significant,” Sharon said.
On top of following protocol, Sharon said people always have an opinion about how they think suicides should be handled, but not everyone is the same, therefore, nothing is effective as a whole for all students.
“We can’t win, because if you do ‘A’ it’s going to hurt this population, if you do ‘B’ it’s going to impact this population. So we are doing what’s best from a mental health perspective,” Sharon explained. “Some people might say we should have an assembly. The problem is you have to be prepared to deal with the fallout of that. And that means we have to have 2,500 mental health counselors ready to pick up the pieces. That’s why research says, ‘We got to take some time before we actively do something.’ Right now, we have to take care of those who are grieving, who their heart breaks every morning they wake up.”
Knowing now that the school district is very limited as to what they can do when a student dies, Haley and other students took matters into their own hands.
Haley said students have been there for each other as a family, even though a lot of them — with about 2,500 students attending the high school — don’t know each other.
After the death of Kylee, Haley said she stayed up until 1 or 2 in the morning making signs to hold as students came to school the morning of Sept. 17.
“I wanted to do something to show the student body that we cared and that they’re loved and that suicide is not the answer, it is never the answer. I just thought since usually we do a prayer every time someone in our school district dies, I thought that would be a perfect opportunity,” Haley explained. “I contacted all my friends to get there 10 minutes before the prayer and get the signs ready. I told them that I wanted to go — after the prayer — in front of the school and hold the signs and wave while everyone entered in so everyone could see and read them.”
Once school began, Haley said, the posters were hung on the walls as a reminder to students that they are loved.
“With the posters I made, we got to share our voice. We got to be silent, but be loud at the same time,” she said.
While students made posters and helped each other the best that they could, Sharon said the counselors were having their own uphill battle the week of Sept. 17.
“Monday morning started off with a shock to many staff members with a meeting sharing the news and then we asked staff members to read a statement to the students during first period. We had multiple layers of intervention with a lot of support from the district office and other schools. So students could come down and have a safe place to be while classrooms moved on with their curriculum,” Sharon said.
Following that Monday, Sharon said she was most concerned with “contagion.” She said she was worried about suicide clusters within the school.
“Basically, we have a list of students on our caseload that we’re worried about. We’re connecting with families and communicating with them,” Sharon explained.
Since there are about 500 students per counselor, according to Sharon, the counselors are heavily reliant on teachers, coaches and parents to contact them if they see any changes in student’s behavior.
“The teachers are the first line of defense,” Sharon said.
Looking to the future, Sharon said the school is going to wait until things settle down a bit to see what the next steps will be. Right now they just want to focus on those students who need help currently, she said.
To do what the school and counselors are not able to do, Laurie said she is starting a “Live for Garrett Foundation” that will help everyone — parents, teachers, coaches, students — understand how to prevent suicide, how to deal with suicide after someone does it or to just talk about someone’s experience with suicide.
Laurie said any funding for the foundation will include a curriculum for suicide prevention called “SOS,” which stands for “Signs of Suicide.”
“We’re dealing with the grief process, but we also want to prevent this from happening again,” Laurie said.
Laurie said she has been in contact with mental health professionals who would be willing to help out with the main goal of the foundation — provide counseling services for those who may not be able to afford it or if their insurance does not cover it for an extended period of time.
She said she has reached out to suicide organizations, youth leaders — like Haley — and the Maple Valley Community Center to help out as well.
“We are trying to put together a meeting for the kids. We are listening to what they’re asking for and when we hear that it doesn’t feel like enough, we are trying to meet that need,” Laurie said. “(Having) an open, honest conversation — like the one we’ve been having in my living room for a year — talking about our own struggles, sharing that more of us than we know do struggle, that there’s nothing wrong with it.”
She continued with, “We need to erase stigma and we need to talk. At that meeting, we’ll start with the kids. We want the kids to have a place where they can go amongst their peers, with myself, the mental health professionals in the area that are making themselves available, other county resources, other agencies that are willing to team up with us on this, and give those kids a face-to-face with the actual resources, as opposed to a list of phone numbers.”
Haley agreed. She said having a place where kids her age can connect would be good. She said it’s hard to listen to an adult tell her, “It’s going to be OK,” when they are from a different generation than her and her fellow classmates.
“It’s nice to know there’s someone you go to school with that is dealing with the same type of thing that can help you through that. Also with how many people need that help, I feel that our school will grow together, the student body will grow together and we will have so many people to go to that we didn’t think we would be able to go to before,” Haley said.
With a goal in mind and recently opened wounds starting to heal again, Haley said things are going OK, but there is no normal anymore.
“I mean there is no going back to normal because this stuff doesn’t go away and it stays with us. There’s getting better, but there’s no going back to the way it used to be. It changed all of our lives forever,” Haley said. “They (students and community members) will ‘Live for Garrett,’ they will ‘Keep on for Kione’ and they will ‘Stay Strong for Kylee.’”
To donate money or help get the “Live for Garrett Foundation” started, go to www.gofundme.com/live4garrett.
To donate toward funeral expenses for Kylee, visit www.gofundme.com/kylee-snyder-funeral-expenses. In eight days, $14,661 of the $15,000 goal has been raised.
The GoFundMe set up for Kione raised a total of $20,332. The campaign is no longer active.
If you or some you know is struggling, contact one of the following numbers –
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Connections: 1-866-427-4747
- Crisis Text Line: Text “HEAL” to 741741.