Monday at Olathe Northwest High School was a far cry from typical.
Hallways fell uncharacteristically silent between classes. Red-eyed students tried to console one another. A slew of counselors, social workers and school psychologists were on hand in case they were needed — and in many cases, they were.
As the school grappled with news that two students — both juniors and members of the girls soccer team — had committed suicide over the weekend, nothing about the day proved normal.
“A lot of kids went home,” said Samyak Badkul, a sophomore who estimated that only about eight of the 20 or so students in his fourth-hour class attended Monday. “The mood was just (somber) — nobody making jokes. Even teachers were very calm and quiet.”
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Word began to spread over the weekend about the first suicide, which occurred around 4 p.m. Friday when a 16-year-old girl took her life at her Olathe home, according to police. Messages and remembrances quickly filled social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook, and Olathe Northwest athletic director Jay Novacek announced that the school would be open Sunday afternoon for students to speak with counselors or hang out and talk.
As students and teachers grieved the first death, a second teen killed herself Sunday night.
According to Lenexa police, the student was standing on railroad tracks when a BNSF Railway train struck her about 8:15 p.m. near Woodland Road and Prairie Star Parkway. She died after being taken to a hospital, said police, who did not release the girl’s age but said she lived in Lenexa.
News of the deaths sparked a flurry of emotions Monday at Olathe Northwest, one of four high schools in the Olathe School District.
At around 7:30 a.m., the school’s staff met to address the first death and notify teachers of resources available to them and their students, according to a letter from Principal Gwen Poss that was distributed to parents Monday.
Staff notified students in their first-hour classes about the first suicide.
By second-hour classes, however, after learning of the second suicide, school officials were informing students about that death, too.
According to some students, teachers and students alike cried upon receiving the news, and following the second announcement, many parents checked their children out of school.
“You dreaded going into the hallways,” said Katie MacDonald. “Class was fine, because I’m a freshman. But when you went into the hallways, that’s when people that knew (the first victim) were there.”
A small group of girls gathered on the school’s soccer field Monday afternoon declined to be interviewed. Reached by phone, Olathe Northwest soccer coach Chris Graham directed any questions to the school’s administration. Attempts to reach Novacek, the athletic director, were unsuccessful.
The nature of the relationship between the two girls was unclear Monday, but they clearly knew each other.
After the first girl died, the second one posted a note on social media suggesting they had been friends.
“For almost 2 years we became close,” she wrote. “I’m going to miss all the times we were both hurt but still cheering on the sidelines. I’m going to miss the times we walked together to our classes. … (Olathe Northwest) will never be the same without you. Rest in peace baby girl.”
Lenexa police and BNSF officials investigated the second suicide. Olathe police investigated the first suicide and have since worked with the district to provide any needed assistance.
“The only thing we’re doing right now is we’re kind of in the support role with the district,” Olathe Police Department spokesman Bryan Hill said Monday. “We’ve got a school resource officer up there and we’re just helping out the school district with whatever they need.”
Suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 10- to -24-year-olds in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes about 4,600 deaths per year.
Most of the victims are male; about 1 in 5 is female.
As they dealt with the news Monday, school officials urged parents to speak with their children about the weekend’s events.
“Here is my request for all parents for this afternoon or evening — please have a heartfelt conversation with your student about these tragedies and specifically about suicide,” Poss wrote in her letter. “... Ask them how they are feeling, be nonjudgmental, and avoid any gossip related to details of the deaths or causes.”
Novacek, the athletic director, also announced via Twitter that a candlelight vigil to celebrate the life of the first teen would be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Grace United Methodist Church, 11485 S. Ridgeview Road in Olathe.
In her letter, Poss said classes at Olathe Northwest would be in session Tuesday.