A 13-year-old shoots himself in the middle of a busy school hallway. Amid disbelief and suffering, the natural reaction would be to do something to keep such a tragedy from repeating itself.
Indeed, we imagine there's been a lot of soul searching on the part of Oklahoma school officials in recent days. The angst and self-doubt is probably particularly deep in Stillwater, where Cade Poulos took his own life far too soon.
Tragedy (or even near tragedy) often spurs change, if not a crusade. It's why we have extensive child welfare laws and why we endure extensive airport security measures. It's why schools have safety committees and why new schools are built with the idea that all visitors must go through the office. So what's the proper reaction in the wake of a suicide in a school hallway?
First, every school community should reflect on the issues raised by Poulos' death. We may never know why Poulos took his own life. But it's OK — even necessary — for school officials to ask themselves whether they have in place the proper policies and practices in a number of areas. These include the mental health needs of students and bullying; security to keep students from bringing weapons on campus; safety plans if a security issue arises; a crisis communications plan with law enforcement authorities and parents; and a plan for support in the event of a tragedy.
Each school community must find its own answers. No doubt some will favor metal detectors, believing that measure would have kept Poulos from bringing a gun to school. Stillwater schools Superintendent Ann Caine said the question of whether to install metal detectors “is something we'll talk about pretty quickly.”
Other communities will insist on a renewed focus on bullying, even absent solid evidence that bullying played a role in Poulos' death. Ann Caine said she spoke with the boy's family and they said bullying “definitely” wasn't to blame.
After a series of suicides in Edmond earlier this year, school officials beefed up the district's suicide prevention efforts and provided training for parents and other interested adults. None of those deaths happened at school, though.
Parents are often told the best think they can do is communicate with their children. It's true, even if it isn't always easy.
Suicide isn't a logical reaction to any sort of struggle. It's impossible to know what measures might have saved Poulos' life. No policy or safety measure is foolproof against a person determined to do harm to himself or others. The best reaction so soon after a heartbreaking incident is to assess and question but not overreact — especially when the hearts and minds of teenagers are so vulnerable.
They need clear-thinking adults making reasonable, responsible decisions.