Candlelight vigil held for Gemesha Thomas to raise suicide awareness
Lee’s Summit R-7 School District Superintendent Dennis Carpenter read a prepared statement to local media hours after a 17-year-old student died from a self-inflicted gunshot Sept. 29 at Lee’s Summit North High School.
Classes had been dismissed at North; parents and the public were notified through different means; and after-school activities, including that evening’s football game, were rescheduled, Carpenter said.
The Lee’s Summit Police Department identified the student as Gemesha Thomas shortly after the press conference. As many schools do following the death of a student, Carpenter said counselors were there for support.
“Our district provided counselors as needed to Lee’s Summit North to meet with students and staff members after school was dismissed,” the superintendent said in his Sept. 29 statement. “We’ll continue to work with our guidance counselors to provide support to Lee’s Summit North during the next several weeks.”
Ten days later, another Lee’s Summit North student — Matthew Kelley, 18 — died Oct. 9 by suicide at his home. He was a senior, active in the school’s theater program, and an International Baccalaureate diploma candidate, according to an obituary.
Once again, as part of its protocol, the district said additional counselors were available to help students cope.
It’s become a familiar refrain after such tragedies, but it seems critical to ask since the deaths of those North students: What services does the district really provide, including any new or existing programs at North that emphasize students’ mental health and/or suicide awareness? Are students actively using those resources to get help?
The district answered yes to both questions in response to an inquiry from the Journal.
Following the death of a student or staff member, Lee’s Summit schools said counselors are mobilized from other buildings within the district to be at the school in crisis and assist students, staff, and parents. Depending on the need, the district said schools are provided eight to 12 additional staff members.
Social workers, school psychologists, and school therapists also are sometimes asked to assist in these situations. The staff members who help are all licensed and credentialed through the state of Missouri, the district said.
Oftentimes, the number of students who seek help from counselors following a death varies depending on the situation, but the district said that number typically ranges from 30 to 50 students.
“These staff members talk with students, provide a listening ear, provide a calm and comforting environment to share their feelings and time to discuss appropriate ways for students to express their feelings, process, and react to grief,” a district spokesperson said. “If school staff are having difficulty, EAP (Employee Assistance Program) is called via the vetted service provider for the district.”
The district also provided to the Journal a breakdown of steps it’s taking or has taken to address mental health awareness and suicide prevention with its students, faculty, and staff:
▪ North administrators met Sept. 11 with a representative from the “You Be You” campaign, through the Greater Kansas City Mental Health Coalition. Staff members are discussing subsequent steps, including the possibility of involving the student council. The program also includes training for signs of suicide;
▪ North’s administration met with experts in the field of suicide prevention in recent weeks, including an Oct. 13 meeting with an advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Kansas City, the district added. The meeting included a discussion of how to work with students, teachers, and families regarding depression and suicide;
▪ North has employed a social worker for three years who assists students with mental health issues;
▪ North staff members participated in Trauma Informed Care training, which focuses on raising awareness of the underlying issues students bring to school. The training is meant to promote “an empathetic approach and empower students to become resilient;”
▪ Counselors at North have a curriculum they deliver to students that focuses on suicide prevention and awareness. Additionally, the district said mental health is covered in a high school health course, which is required for all students;
▪ The high school also started “Bronco Time” four years ago to provide students with time for tutoring or meeting with a counselor as well as providing a break from the day. “Bronco Time” is held several times each week.
If a student is determined by staff to be at risk for suicide, counselors meet with the student, assess the situation, contact the parents, and make referrals for professional help. With the help of one of the high school social workers, the district said guidance counselors also could implement a contract for assessment.
Through this process, guidance counselors ask the parents of the student to sign a contract agreeing to follow through with help when counselors believe further professional assessment is necessary. The district said in addition to this promise from parents, the counselors ask for documentation of the assessment in return.
“School staff members work to establish positive relationships with students and families throughout the year,” the district said through a spokesperson. “One of the most important factors that positively influence school safety is the establishment and cultivation of positive relationships between our educators, students, and our families.”
Of course, teen suicide isn’t a problem unique to North.
Pete Leizer moved from Lee’s Summit, where he had lived since 2005, to Castle Rock, Colo., after his son, Kyle Leizer, took his own life last April 23 at his dad’s home.
Kyle, then 14 and a student in the Raymore-Peculiar East Middle School, split time between his father’s and mother’s homes after a 2013 divorce. He was enrolled in advanced classes and played hockey in the Kansas City Youth Hockey Organization.
A week before he died, Pete said another teenage boy in Kyle’s hockey organization also committed suicide — further proof that it’s an all-too-common scourge, but one Pete tries to do something about.
After his son’s death, and in Kyle’s memory, Pete has reached out to other parents — talking about suicide prevention, making others aware of the resources and information available to families in need, and teaching about the warning signs of someone who may be considering suicide.
“I think the teachers and counselors need to be formally trained in it (suicide prevention), that’s my opinion,” Pete said. “But I believe, as parents, we’ve got to be able to know the signs as well, because we can’t rely on the teachers and the school district to try to do everything. It’s up to the parents. They have to be involved, too.”
Days after Kyle died, the Raymore-Peculiar School District shared his obituary on its Facebook page, notifying the community that it was mourning the loss of a student. A Ray-Pec district spokesperson said it’s standard practice for the school to notify parents if a child’s classmate dies.
Similar to the Lee’s Summit district, the 6,000-student Ray-Pec district in Cass County also brings in counselors from other schools during times of crisis, including after the death of a student. It has 16 trained state-certified counselors.
“All students who wish to speak to the counselor are typically allowed to go to a specific room in the building, then process with a group of students and a counselor, or see a counselor on an individual basis,” a spokesperson for the Ray-Pec district said. “Often, students want to process through incidents of this nature in a group and seek comfort from peers and the counselors present.”
Pete Leizer doesn’t blame anybody for his son’s death, but he hopes to prevent other teen suicides by sharing Kyle’s story and confronting the issue.
“I think, as a parent, you need to talk to your child about it and not dance around the subject,” he said. “You have to immediately confront it. Is it going to prevent them all the time? No, but if we can prevent one, if we can prevent two, that’s a major win. These kids need to understand that there are so many other solutions out there. There are so many other ways to get help.”
According to results from a recent survey conducted by The Kansas City Star, 71.6 percent of more than 100 respondents said they most often turned to a friend for support. Nearly 62 percent of respondents said they sought counseling and 60.5 percent said they turned to family.
For more information on suicide prevention, Lee’s Summit CARES is sponsoring a community conversation at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 1 at Lee’s Summit City Hall, 220 S.E. Green St., which focuses on mental health, especially for youth and teens.
Anyone needing immediate help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.