STILLWATER — Once again parents and a community are left to grieve and grapple with questions after a young person violently ended his life.
Cade Poulos, 13, shot himself in the head with a handgun 10 minutes before the morning bell Wednesday morning at Stillwater Junior High School, sending shocked students fleeing the grisly scene in a school hallway. His very public death highlighted the problem of teen suicide in a state that far exceeds the national average for this problem.
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Oklahomans ages 10-24, according to the state Health Department.
It's a complex problem requiring community involvement, said Ken Elliott, a licensed family and marriage counselor who serves as co-chairman of a suicide prevention task force in Edmond.
The task force has been around for several years, but after a rash of youth suicides in January — three in three weeks, one of them an eighth-grader — it began taking on a new prominence.
“Suicide cuts across all places of worship, places of work, public and private schools — it's a community tragedy,” Elliott said. “We as people tend to be too judgmental and too quick to decide, ‘Oh, it's a school problem,' or, ‘Oh, that's a bullying problem,' but it's not. It's more complicated than that.”
Bullying became a question after Wednesday's shooting in Stillwater, with numerous comments posted on a memorial Facebook page for Poulos. Most criticized the school for failing to protect its students. None, however, named a specific act of bullying waged against the eighth-grader. Authorities said they were investigating the possibility of bullying but said there were no official records that he had been bullied.
Friend didn't see problems
Clairissa Mouton, a ninth-grader at Stillwater Junior High who was familiar with Poulos, said if there was bullying she never saw it. But her school, she said, is no different from others. Bullying, for some kids, is a problem. The junior high houses about 750 students in grades eight and nine.
“Sometimes younger kids and new kids and stuff that really don't know anyone yet, or kids that might not be as smart as anyone else — we're like other schools,” she said. “But if a teacher hears about someone being bullied then they go up to them, and the first week of school or something they always have an assembly and you hear about bullying.”
Mouton said she's seen plenty of joking, teasing and bullying at the school so far this year. But she never saw Poulos, described by school officials as a good student with a friendly smile and a shock of red hair, as a target.
“I know he was really happy and stuff in school. He never actually said he was bullied to anyone I know of,” she said. “But he didn't hang out with the really popular-popular kids; it was more like the normal groups. He was just kind of in the middle.”
State's suicide rate
The suicide rate among people ages 10 to 24 in Oklahoma is a moving target in any given year, but the recent average is just fewer than 10 incidents per 10,000 people. For every suicide, there are 100 to 200 unsuccessful attempts, according to the state Health Department.