LEWISTON — The school year that ended Wednesday for middle-schoolers was a tough one, with two students dying in the past six months.
During a sparsely attended community forum to discuss the district’s response to tragedy Wednesday night, Lewiston Middle School Principal Jake Langlais talked about how staff responded to the deaths, and why the response was so different in each case.
On Nov. 3, Jayden Cho-Sargent was killed while crossing Main Street on his way to school, walking in a marked crosswalk.
In that situation, staff helped organize a vigil, and grief counselors focused on celebrating Cho-Sargent’s life and infectious smile. The football team dedicated its weekend game in his memory. A scholarship has since been established in his name and the school’s yearbook was dedicated to his memory.
When Ani Graham took her life on May 23, none of those things happened.
In situations of suicide, health care professionals and educators are trained to respond differently, Langlais explained. Counseling is focused on preventing additional suicides, and the district made every effort to return students to normal routines as quickly as possible.
Langlais said there was frustration from students and others that the response was different, but he explained the grieving process is different in cases of accidental and intentional deaths.
The biggest difference, he said, is that after Graham’s death, blame was part of the mix —the community blaming the school, her friends blaming themselves for not doing enough to help her, and students who didn’t get along with her in school blaming themselves for their behavior.
Langlais said he was on his way to a training session on the morning of May 24 when police alerted him of Graham’s death. He immediately implemented the district’s protocol to convene a crisis response team and alerted staff with a written message. Parents were first alerted with a robocall, then by text message and two additional phone calls. An assembly was organized to inform students, and counseling space for students and staff was arranged. The school also prepared for requests from the media.
This was all done in a state of shock and grief, and their actions were intended to disseminate the most accurate information to people while also respecting the privacy of a family in mourning.
Langlais said the district is aware the communication and staff response had to be thoughtful and immediate, and the intense media attention made the process more difficult for everyone. But, he said, the district followed the advice of mental health experts to take a measured, low-key approach to the suicide. The funeral was not held at the school, and for days after her death, the middle school staff removed things left at her locker to prevent students from establishing a shrine.
“We won’t know for years if we did it right, and we have to carry that,” Langlais said. “The real answer will come with time.”
Langlais said mental health research suggests large student gatherings may encourage suicide, so that’s not recommended. But he said he felt the need to deliver the same message to students at the same time, so he called for a school assembly. The district made sure counselors were available, and students took advantage of that access.
“We were thinking on our feet and trying to make sure we were providing the right message and support,” he said.
In the week following Graham’s death, Langlais said hundreds of students saw in-school clinicians each day for nearly a week “because they didn’t know what to do with their grief.” He said about 50 students were taken to hospitals for evaluation of self-harm. Many, many more were identified by school staff as at-risk for harm and referred for treatment, he said.
If the school faces tragedy in the future, Langlais said the response may be different yet again as staff responds to unique circumstances. In the meantime, the district is prepared to respond to students’ needs for help over the summer.
Letters listing available resources were sent to parents, and services were posted on the district’s website, Langlais said. Students were given handouts with numbers and services, and school office staff are prepared to respond as necessary, he said. Tri-County Mental Health is also on alert if students need help, he said.
A secondary purpose of Wednesday’s forum was to gather feedback from the community about what the district could do differently in case of future tragedy. One idea was to pull together a list of things people could do to help. After Cho-Sargent died, and again after Graham died, community members called the school, asking what they could do.
A list made available in advance may streamline that process, which Langlais said they would consider. Another idea was to limit media access to students on school property.
Asked what he thought the community could do better in the future, Langlais suggested people could be more patient, and should resist the natural desire to try to fill in blanks of missing information. He said much of the information shared following each death was wrong, and those inaccuracies created more confusion for students and unnecessary pain for the families.
“With information flowing so quickly, especially on social media, think independently,” he said. “Don’t add to the stress” of the situation by sharing rumors, he said.
Middle School Assistant Principal Pam Butler added, “get better at being kind to one another.”
It’s a message which is already widely shared at the school, she said, and it needs to be heard more loudly in the community.
Several days after Graham’s death, the school district held a community forum to talk about suicide prevention and just last week held a second forum, focused on bullying prevention.
Following Wednesday’s forum, Superintendent Bill Webster said he and Langlais are willing to hold other forums as necessary.
Langlais said the district will continue talking about response to tragedy as soon as the new school year begins in September.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Jake Langlais’ name.