Who is accountable to parents and the public when teenagers take their own lives? The surprising answer, I have learned, is no one: not Fairfax County Public Schools officials, not the school board, not the county police who investigate the deaths. Teen suicide is so stigmatized and controversial in the eyes of the people we pay to protect us that the most basic questions are rejected as off-limits. It’s as if the public’s right to know stops short of this subject or not talking about them will make them stop.
That’s grossly irresponsible. Following four suicides in February alone by teenage boys from two public high schools (Langley in McLean and Woodson in Fairfax), many parents including myself believe the leaders of our schools and our community have a sworn duty not just to protect the grieving families of the deceased — but also to protect the living, to do whatever it takes to prevent future suicides.
Too little is being done. FCPS’ response to these back-to-back suicides included community meetings on suicide prevention at both Woodson (which has lost five students to suicide in recent years) and at Langley. Both those schools posted suicide-prevention phone numbers prominently on their websites. But what about the county’s other 20 public high schools? Are they somehow suicide-proof?
The school board has not undertaken any research into why suicides among Virginia’s students are rising: 52 in 2011, the latest year statewide data is available, up from 45 in 2010 and 42 in 2009, according to medical examiner data. Is the board so busy with its $2.5 billion schools budget that it can’t spend some time and money exploring why students in its schools are killing themselves and seeking ways to keep them safe?
The Police Department has not issued a single press release about the suicides and never will. An officer I called refused to discuss the Langley suicides, both of which involved guns, even though the cases are closed. He said it’s not the department’s job to publicly warn parents who have guns at home to lock them away from children, especially emotionally troubled teenagers. Why isn’t that the role of our law enforcement agency? For 50 years, the department’s policy has been that suicide is a private matter, not a crime. Once officers find no evidence of foul play in a death, the case is closed and — silence.
Maybe that approach was acceptable in Ozzie and Harriett’s day, before the Web and social media, 24/7 news, violent movies and video games, and the proliferation of guns in homes. It isn’t working in 2014. Parents, public servants and elected officials in Fairfax County have a moral duty to the memories of teenagers who have been lost — and many other teenagers we can still save — to make suicide prevention a top family, school and public safety priority. All that’s missing here is real leadership.
Marilyn Adams, McLean