The Natrona County High School community has banded together during a year in which three students and two faculty members have died, Principal Shannon Harris said Thursday.
“It’s been an interesting year,” she said. “I hope I never have another one like it.”
Two weeks ago, teacher Jeff Jelskey died. In March, a student killed himself, and earlier this month, another took his own life. In the fall, another faculty member died, and a third student died earlier in the year.
That doesn’t account for NCHS parents who’ve died this year, Harris and district spokeswoman Tanya Southerland said. Neither felt comfortable speculating about how many parents have passed away.
Harris said in the wake of each tragedy, the high school’s more than 1,500 students banded together and supported each other. Other high schools sent notes and treats to faculty, like a pan of chocolate, letting them know the losses are not felt solely by the NCHS community.
“The thing that gives me hope is to see in tough times people in Wyoming pull together and support one another,” she said. “I’ve been really proud of our kids and staff to see the support they’ve given as tough things happen.”
The high school isn’t alone in its mourning. Kelly Walsh High School lost members of its community as well, including Aurora Rohrer, a 16-year-old who died in car crash on the way to her boyfriend’s wrestling tournament in March. The wrestler is an NCHS student.
The losses affect students at both schools. When a tragedy occurs at Kelly Walsh, for example, NCHS might make counselors available for its own students.
“I think we’re there for one another, as needs arise in the schools,” Harris said.
It’s district policy not to confirm the causes of death of students and staff, Southerland said, and the district will not answer questions about specific incidents. At the time of their deaths, the cause for both Rohrer and Jelskey was confirmed to the Star-Tribune by other officials, like county Coroner Connie Jacobson.
Support for students
The district has a set policy, which was recently revised slightly, for when these tragedies occur. Harris said the response can vary from incident to incident, depending on the manner of death, the location and the time of year. But counselors are typically made available to students and school employees. Staff are usually alerted, but the school typically doesn’t alert the student body as a whole.
“The students usually know before we do,” Harris said.
When the school needs more counselors in the wake of tragedies, Harris said, it contacts Dean Braughton, the director of student support services for the district, to bring in additional help. Harris said outside groups have also offered help. Students can meet individually with counselors or in groups.
The district’s policy states that its top priority is to respect the wishes of the family, as much as possible. It establishes reporting lines and officials in the district who will be alerted to the incident. In the case of suicide, only a handful of high-level district administrators will be told the cause of death, including the principal and the superintendent’s cabinet.
The Star-Tribune does not usually report on specific incidents of suicide.
In recent years, Wyoming has worked to increase suicide awareness in its 48 school districts. Three years ago, the Legislature passed the Jason Flatt Act, which requires that every employee in every district in the state undergo eight hours of suicide awareness training every four years.
Additionally, the state rolled out the Safe2Tell program this year. The mobile phone application is an anonymous way for students to report threats and safety concerns to authorities. Harris said there have been 61 tips related to NCHS this year. Officials said in December that the program has exceeded expectations so far; more than 100 tips had been by that point.
“We just had another tip (Wednesday night),” she said. “Self harm, suicide, threats, drugs, alcohol, bullying, harassment. Just all kinds of things. You name it, it’s probably been tipped.”
Harris said NCHS is considering adding more staff training to the hours already required by law. The school has also rolled out Mustang Connections, which Harris called her pet project. Under the program, students meet in small groups with a teacher during a 35-minute period. The purpose is to create connections between students and their faculty and build a support system.
She cited a lack of that connection as one of the leading causes of students dropping out of school. But she also said the program can be used to identify potential mental health problems in students.
Harris said she hopes to build on Mustang Connections next year to help spot “multiple at-risk behaviors.”
Harris stressed that suicide and student death is not the most common issue the school faces. She said that distinction belongs to truancy. She also cited alcohol and drug use, particularly in the wake of marijuana’s legalization in Colorado, as other common challenges.
Through all the struggles this year, which began with the death of a faculty member and ended with another, Harris said the school has remained strong. She’s proud of that strength.
Students “love one another, fundraise for one another,” Harris said. “And do what they can to be there for one another, in the good and the bad times.”