From the time a child is born, a parent’s primary goal is to keep it alive. Whether by insisting on a bike helmet, holding hands in a parking lot or buying organic, that goal is the driver.
When a child dies, the whole community grieves.
However, when a child dies a violent death, by his own hand or another’s, the whole community not only grieves, but cries out.
This week, not one, but two Shawnee Mission Northwest freshmen took their own lives. First, a boy identified by the district as Steven Cohenour. Then, a day later, a girl, who has yet to be publicly identified.
In response, the community is making some noise.
Fellow teenagers, parents, grandparents and community members greeted students and staff arriving at Shawnee Mission Northwest on Thursday morning with signs of support.
“We love you,” one read. “You can never be replaced,” another read. Dozens of signs on bright poster board.
Sara Crafton, president ot SM Northwest’s PTA and the event’s organizer, said that after the second death parents quickly mobilized on Facebook, creating a page called SMNW Parents in Action and meeting with Principal Lisa Gruman.
Anne Nettie was among the parents standing on the street in front of the school Thursday holding a sign with hashtags: #yourlifematters, #cougarfamily, and #smnwstrong.
“The kids are anxious and on edge and need to know we’re behind them,” she said.
Nettie’s daughter, a sophomore cheerleader, decided on her own after school Tuesday that she wanted to paper the lockers and walls with supportive sticky notes, which made her mom proud. Nettie tells her daughter and her daughter’s friends they can always come to her and encourages them to watch each other for signs of trouble.
Charity Becker and her daughter Catherine, a sophomore, braved the chilly weather side by side.
“It’s hard enough as an adult to wrap my head around this, then to see my daughter struggle to wrap her head around it,” Charity said. “People get to such a dark place and don’t understand that people see their light.”
Amber Willis’ grandson is a freshman who’s received an outpouring of support from his older cousin.
“He’s been in his ear since this happened, saying ‘I love you’ and ‘You can call me if you don’t want to talk to your mom,’” Willis said.
She said kids have got to hear these messages from their peers.
The sign Willis held read: “You are awesome, Northwest Cougars.”
She decided to make the sign and stand near the bus entrance because “I want the kids to be here next year. I want them to live, grow up, be an adult, grow old, have kids, get married. It doesn’t end at 14, 15, 16. You haven’t even gotten to the fun stuff,” Willis said.
SM School District Director of Communications Shawna Samuel said no staff interviews would be granted to media about either the suicides or the rally.
“Our entire staff and leadership team is giving everything they’ve got to support our students and staff,” she wrote Wednesday in an email to The Star.
After school started Thursday, students attended an all-school assembly presented by Johnson County Mental Health that addressed the tragedies and how to cope with them.
Additionally, Johnson County Mental Health hosted a community event Thursday evening at SM Northwest, which included presentations on how to help our children handle grief and traumatic experiences as well as suicide prevention.
PTA member Pam Hale said that one of her children was suicidal several years ago. The constant message in her household is: You are loved. She still frequently discusses suicide with her kids and wants them to understand life simply has its ups and downs.
“And we’ve got to endure that roller coaster, knowing that we’re going to go back up the hill,” Hale said.