Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Why I Walk: Honoring A Son Lost To Suicide

We must...We must bring our own list to the darkness. -Charles Bukowski

On June 2, 2018, I have the distinct honor of participating in the Honor Bead Ceremony before the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention's Overnight Walk in Dallas.  As part of the Ceremony, I was asked to come up with 3-5 sentences explaining "Why I Walk".  I sat down and tried to come up with 3-5 sentences, but it went way beyond that.  Here is Why I Walk:

I walk because Peyton can't.  Peyton is my forever 13 year old son who took his life in October of 2014. I was not only to keep Peyton's memory alive, but the memory of Jack, and Cathy, and Josh, and Jonald, and Hannah, and Cassidy, and Steven, and Ronnie, and far too many others that left this world too soon.  

I walk for me and the mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, acquaintances, class mates, and total strangers whose lives will never be the same because of suicide.  

I walk for all of those who battle with mental health conditions. These conditions beat them down with a crippling pain that makes them think that the only solution is to end their lives.  These issues have convinced them that everyone they know an love is better off and happier without them in their lives.

Finally, I walk for me.  In the three plus years since Peyton's death, I have realized that there is a need for me to walk.  I cannot sit by and turn a blind eye while more than 40,000 people in American take their lives every year, I cannot sit by while suicide becomes the second leading cause of death in young people, and I cannot sit by while people continue to ignore causes and effects of suicide because the thought of discussing such a sensitive subject makes them uncomfortable.  I have news for those people, burying a loved one lost to suicide is a hell of a lot more uncomfortable than talking about it. I'm sorry if they are uncomfortable, but if talking about suicide can save even one life, then they are going to have to deal with it.  

And THAT is why I walk.  

Monday, May 7, 2018

Signs From My Son On The Other Side

Those we love don't go away, they walk beside us every day.
Unseen, unheard, but always near; still loved, still missed and very dear.

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son Peyton hanged himself in his bedroom at his mother's house in Georgetown, Texas.  At the time, I was 160 miles away in The Woodlands, Texas.  I was just leaving work when I got the call from his mother.  I was in the process of leaving work when his mother called. I had just finished sprinting through the rain to my truck when she called.  After hanging up, I sat in the cab of the truck, screaming, yelling, pounding on the steering wheel and punching the roof.  I had tears streaming down my face and snot running out of my nose.  I begged God to take my life instead, to let Peyton live. Until my wife Lisa arrived to pick me up, I kept pleading for God to take me from the Earth if only Peyton could live.  
For the next five days I sat buy his side in the PICU at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, and  was at his side on October 13th when he passed.  The entire time he was in the hospital, I continued to plead with God to take my life instead.  I even went so far as to visit the chapel  in the hospital, get down on my hands and knees, and beg for God to take me instead.

My faith had taught me that there was a heaven, and that it was a reward for those that had let Christ into their lives.  Peyton had been baptized, and truly loved going to church, so I believed he was in a better place where everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.  However, from the time he hanged himself until the time he passed , he never regained consciousness, and aside from one brief moment, he never made any movement that wasn't involuntary, so I truly wanted to know that he was okay.  Upon returning home, I spent a lot of time at the prayer fountain at my church talking to Peyton.  I  did what most grieving parents did and asked for a sign that he was okay.

In the week between Peyton's passing and his funeral, I took advantage of the beautiful October weather that we Texans look forward to after our brutal summers.  Whether it was sitting on the deck reading, fixing the fence, or taking our Corgi, Earl, for a walk, I noticed an abundance of butterflies and dragonflies.  Neither one is unusual in Texas in October, so I thought nothing of it even though they seemed to be where ever I went.  I also noted a spike in Earl's activity.  Normally content to spend the evenings sprawled out on the cool tile floor of the kitchen, he would walk into the living room, look into a spot where no one was sitting and let out a cross between a howl and a growl, get very excited, and wiggle his tailless booty.  When we would call out to him, it seemed to break his trance, and he looked around wondering why we were all staring at him.

None of these alone were unusual, but combined they seemed too much of a coincidence, especially when people began to ask me if I had dreams about where I talked to Peyton, or had seen signs that his spirit was still around.  For example, both the butterfly and the dragonfly are both considered to be spiritual messengers.  Even though there is no scientific proof that dogs can or can't see spirits, there are those that believe that they can.  Maybe this is just my mind (and many others) seeing what it wants to see, or wishful thinking on our part as well.  I began to read various articles, blogs and postings about signs from our loved ones.  Then again, it is one of the many unexplained phenomena that that people argue the existence of.  They talk about everything from physical signs such as coins and seashells, to music, numbers, and smells.  The funny thing is, I never saw these signs when I was looking for them, but rather when I wasn't even thinking about Peyton.

Over the last three and a half years, I have seen these signs occasionally, but never really put much thought into it.  My daughter and Emmy and I  would see a cardinal or a dragonfly and say "It's Peyton", but never put much though into it until this past February.

Last year, for the first time since Peyton's death, I decided to take a chance and began looking to make a change in my working situation.  I have been the assistant swim coach for several years, and decided that I wanted to be a head coach.  It was a big move for me.  The experts say that after a traumatic death like a suicide, no major decisions should be made. They say don't move, don't change jobs, don't do anything during that time that you may look back on and regret.  This was a bold step for me.  I was still battling depression and anxiety, not exactly ideal circumstances for a job hunter.  I had several interviews, but nothing panned out, but rather than give up, I decided that I would try again this year.

Two new high schools (one in my district) were opening locally, and I thought that I might have a chance to start the program.  After talking things over with my wife, I decided to put my name in for both jobs.  I also talked to Peyton about it.  Now some people would scratch their head wondering why I would talk to my deceased son for permission.  Through the Peyton Heart Project,  I go to schools in order to tell the students Peyton's story and explain to them about mental health issues, bullying, and suicide awareness and prevention.  Should I become a head coach, I would have to drastically reduce my speaking engagements to fulfill my duties as a head coach.  I wanted Peyton to know what I was doing and why, that I still intended to honor his memory and legacy, but it would have to be on a smaller scale.

Any one that has ever looked for a job knows that the waiting is the worst part.  I spent hours working on updating and improving my resume, composing a cover letter, and dotting the "I's" and crossing the "T's" on the applications.  Once the jobs were posted, I applied immediately, I emailed the principals and athletic directors, then sat back to wait.  Nothing.  I heard no response from anyone.  One of the jobs was even posted three times, each time whittling down the teaching fields (of which I possess one).  I don't know which is  worse, the anxiety of waiting, or the depression that sets in at the end of each day when I don't hear anything.  I make inquiries, I talk to people in the know, email the appropriate people to keep my name in mind.  Nothing.

Some days are worse than others.  On those days, I talk to Peyton and ask him if he wants me to keep pursuing these jobs.  There are days when I wonder if he does, but it never fails that when I am at my lowest, Peyton sends me a sign.  The first came when I was taking some uniforms to the swim team's equipment cage.  I opened up the door, and there, sitting on the floor was a dime.  Most of the time, I would have thought nothing of it, picked it up and pocketed it for Emmy to put in her piggy bank, but this was not one of those times.  It had been a rough day, and I needed a sign, and there it was.  A few days later, it was a quarter, and a few more after that, it was a nickel.  All of these were found at the school.  Silver money doesn't last on the floor very long.  Any coin that can go into a vending machine gets snapped up quickly, but there it was in plain sight waiting for me.

The most telling sign from Peyton came last week in the form of a dragonfly.  Emmy and I were at the park one afternoon.  As she was burning off an excess of energy on the playground, I was sitting on one of the benches looking at job postings on my phone.  It was discouraging because there seemed to be no openings locally that I was interested in.  As I was scrolling, I was surprised by a dragonfly.  I swatted at it and sent it flying away.  After hitting it, I was struck by what it could have represented and apologized to it for my behavior.  After Emmy finished playing and throwing rocks into the pond, we walked to the bike rack.  I took my bike off the rack and as I waited for Emmy to get her helmet on, the same dragonfly (or his twin brother) landed on one of my tires.  It sat patiently while I slowly reached out to it.  Instead of flying off, it jumped off of the tire and onto my finger.  It stayed there as I called Emmy over to look at it, and even with Emmy bouncing around, it didn't move.  It was then that I was convinced that it was a visit from Peyton.

I know there are a lot of people thinking that I am full of crap, or that I am just seeing what I want to see.  Maybe I am.  There are those that will claim there is no life after death.  Maybe they are right.  Maybe I am just hoping for something that doesn't exist to ease my conscience and pain.  Maybe I am looking in all the wrong places for solace.  But what if I am right.   Of course there are those that need no proof, just their faith to say there is life after death, but there are those that say that there is an afterlife, and even claim scientific evidence.  When push comes to shove, I'll take what ever keeps my son alive in my heart.

*Author's Note:  On Wednesday, May 2nd, I was having another bad day.  I was feeling hopeless, especially as the school year winds down.  On my way to my car, I had to maneuver around a car that was in my usual path.  As I went around, there was a penny on the ground in front of me.  It was old, tarnished and scratched up, but it was still a sign.  When I got home, I took Earl for a walk.  Along the way, I saw a cardinal sitting on a sign as we walked past, and further on, the same dragonfly seemed to follow us along the sidewalk, several butterflies were taking advantage of the spring bloom Say what you want, but I will take these as a sign.

If you have read this far, please take a few minutes to view the video I collaborated on with Project Caleb and The Peyton Heart Project.  Thank you.

"A Day Without Peyton"

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Can Logan Paul Redeem Himself? Here's An Offer To Help

The idea was to shock and show the harsh realities of suicide and get people talking about something that I don't think people are talking about much -Logan Paul

Up until late December-early January, I had never heard of Logan Paul, and I was perfectly content and blissfully ignorant of his existence. Sadly, that came crashing to an end. Paul and his brother Jake became famous for their short videos on Vine. They parlayed their success into a Youtube channel that boasts over 16 million followers. The videos Paul posts on his are derivative of the same humor that made the MTV show Jackass so successful by being loud, obnoxious, emotionally stunted men making total asses of themselves and then mugging into the camera. Paul is a narcissistic 20 something, running around with a camera and a juvenile sense of humor, generally making an ass of himself (when he is not mugging for the camera), doing everything short of setting himself on fire in pursuit of the sacred "like" clicks that feed his already bloated ego. After forcing myself to watch a couple of his videos, I can see why I never heard of Mr. paul, but I can also understand why he would appear to a younger generation.

What brought Mr. Paul to my attention was a video he posted to his Youtube channel shortly after Christmas. Paul and his sycophants were in Japan doing what they do best, acting like dumbasses and uploading the content to Youtube for the entertainment (not enlightenment) of others. One of the videos that he uploaded was shot in Aokigahara, an area near Mt. Fuji in Japan. Sadly, Aokigahara, also known as the Sea of Trees, has become internationally known as one of the most prevalent suicide sites in the world. Because of this reputation, signs have been put at the head of some trails urge suicidal visitors to think of their families and contact a suicide prevention association. When Paul and his band of merry idiots entered the forest, they were allegedly there to camp and "make an entertaining piece of content in a forest." However, what they found was not a night of hijinks in the forest, but the body of a suicide victim. Instead of killing the camera then and there, they kept rolling while Paul called out “Yo, are you alive?”and “Are you f*cking with us?” This was followed by his nervous laughter and continued cracking of jokes. Not only did he continue filming, he then edited and uploaded the video.

This is where I have a problem. First of all, I lost my 13 year old son Peyton to suicide in October of 2014. Peyton came home came home from school one day, went in his room and hung himself. Needless to say, I have issues with people who make fun of those that choose to take their lives. Peyton actually dreamed of being a Youtube star himself. Perhaps he saw some of Paul's antics and wanted to be like him, but we will never know.

Instead of deleting the video, Paul chose to post it. Paul chose to show his 16 million, young, impressionable viewers the body of a man that made the hardest decision of his life. Paul chose to laugh like a little school girl while this man's body hung from a tree. Paul chose to do this, in his words, "not for views" (because he gets views), but to "raise awareness for suicide and suicide prevention." He even went so far as to put a warning at the beginning of the video, as we all know how effective that is in getting kids to not watch something. Then, when the sh*t hit the fan, Paul pulled the video, but not before millions had a chance to view it. Not surprisingly, people were outraged, and they made Mr. Paul aware of this through social media.

After the backlash, Paul followed the script from the celebrity playbook, waited a couple of days and issued a poorly written apology where he seemed to extoll his own virtues while perplexed as to why people would b angry. After all, according to Paul, he does "this sh*t every day. [He's made a 15 minute TV show EVERY SINGLE DAY for the past 460+ days." Paul took the next step by posting a rehearsed and scripted apology. In the video, he tries to sound remorseful, says that he was wrong, tells his legions of followers not to defend him, and promises us that he will be a better person in the future. He then made a video called Suicide: Be Here Tomorrow. Mingled in between the slow motion shots of Paul walking and tossing a rock back and forth in his hands, he sits down and talks to suicide attempt survivor Kevin Hines and Dr. John Draper, Director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We see Paul paying rapt attention and nodding his head. At the end of the video, Paul pledges one million of his own money to various suicide prevention organizations. Finally, this past week, Paul began his national apology tour on Good Morning America. Of course he promised that he has learned from his experience, that he will be a better and more sensitive person in the future. You will have to excuse me if I appear skeptical, but I have to wonder if these are the actions of a repentant person, or those of a narcissist desperate to stay relevant and in the limelight.

Are there people in this world that have done worse things than Paul? Of course. Does Paul deserve a second chance? Of course. Let's give Paul a chance to see if he can become a better person. Let's give him a chance to follow through on his promises. In fact, I wold like to offer Mr. Paul a chance to show how sincere he really is. On June 2, 2018, I will be taking part in the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention's Overnight Walk In Dallas. Mr. Paul, would you consider sponsoring me? I am required to raise $1,000 in order to take part in this event. Would you be willing to help out? Or even better, please join me and hundreds of others as we walk to raise awareness of suicide. Come and listen to the stories of those that have lost loved ones. Meet people that know the pain of knowing that their husband, wife, daughter, son, sister, or brother will never come home again. You want to be a better person Mr. Paul? Here's your chance.

Monday, December 18, 2017

A Small Stone With A Huge Meaning

Don't give up. Don't ever give up. - Jim Valvano

On Saturday, December 16, 2017 the southern part of the state of Texas was thoroughly doused in a downpour.  The next day, Sunday the 17th broke cloudy and cold, and the sky threatened more of the same. At 11:00 that morning, my family and I began our trek from Wimberly, where we had attended my wife Lisa's office Christmas party, to Georgetown where we would meet up with Peyton's mother Jacki and others to finally place his remembrance stone in the Memorial Garden at Forbes Middle School.

The journey was to this day was not one of miles, but of time and obstacles.  On October 8, 2014, Peyton, then an 8th grader at Forbes, came home from school and hanged himself in his bedroom.  Despite the efforts of his mother, first responders, and the PICU staff at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Peyton passed away from his injuries on October 13th.

In the days leading up to his death, Peyton had filed a harassment complaint against another student.  My initial reaction was to use the young man as a punching bag, but as cooler heads prevailed.  I became worried about the burden that the young man would be carrying.  I emailed the principal to see if they were able to identify the young man in question.  I was told he was not, and that worried me, but two years later, after reading the police report, I discovered that the principal at the time had lied to me and Jacki. I have no idea why he felt the need to keep this information from us.  Perhaps he was protecting the student's privacy, perhaps he was following orders from above, perhaps he was covering his own ass, but he allowed us to spend more than two years thinking that this kid went undiscovered, perhaps carrying guilt over Peyton's death.

Earlier this year, when Jacki discovered that there was a memorial garden at Forbes, she asked the current principal if we could place a small memorial stone for Peyton.  She was told no because Peyton had taken his life.   Needless to say, this was the wrong thing to tell two parents that were not willing to slink off with their tail between our legs.  Through our respective non-profits, Kindness Matters and The Peyton Heart Project, and social media, we raised awareness of this situation.  People were outraged by this. While Jacki contacted people within the district seeking to resolve the situation, I began my research to debunk the district's antiquated arguments against the memorial, as well as any policy that the district had addressing memorials (they had none).  In November, we were finally given the go ahead to place the stone.  It had to be placed before the first of the year, as the district adopted a policy that no more memorials would be allowed*.

As we drove up Interstate 35, the sun finally broke through and the clouds began to drift away.  We arrived at Forbes, located the garden, and waited for others to arrive.  Slowly, vehicles began to drift into the parking lot.  A small group comprised of friends, family, and even a school board member, went about the task of cleaning up the garden.  We pulled weeds, moved rocks, and picked up trash.  Finally, we placed his stone, a small 12x18 remembrance of a life that ended far too soon. As I stood silently, I held back my tears as long as I could before I lost it.  As Lisa held me, I let the tears pour out of me.  After I composed myself long enough to thank those that showed up, I knelt down on the cold, damp ground one more time.  I touched the stone to reassure myself that it was there, that the fight to honor my son was over, and we had achieved our goal not to force the district to enact new policy, but to pay homage to a life ended too soon.

I can't help but wonder if Peyton had died of cancer or been hit by a car while riding bike, would we have had two have jumped through so many hoops to be allowed this small memorial?  As an avid reader of author Michael Connelly, I have become a fan of his character Harry Bosch.  In Connelly's book The Last Coyote, Bosch says "everybody counts or nobody counts. That's it. It means I bust my ass to make a case whether it's a prostitute or the mayor's wife. That's my rule." In a way, that is how I feel about honoring students that have passed away.  School Districts need to have guidelines in place should a student lose their life.  If they choose to allow a memorial, a mention in the yearbook, a moment of silence, a picture in the hall or not, that is their right.  However, they must enforce this policy equally.  The president of the student council is no better or worse than the quiet kid in the back of the room failing every class.  Whether the student dies from cancer is no more, or less, honorable than a student that dies from depression.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed home, I was finally able to take some solace in knowing that Peyton finally received the honor he deserved. No, Peyton won't be remembered for a long touchdown run, a breath taking performance on stage, hitting the winning shot, or for an award winning article in the school paper.  But thanks to a small stone with a huge meaning, at least he will be remembered.

*As of January 1, 2018, the Georgetown Independent School District will no longer allow external memorials for any student who passes away.  However,  They will allow things like donating books in a child's name or some other thing that can be moved from building to building if needed.  Any memorials that are currently in place will be allowed to stay.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Let's Have A Conversation about Suicide and Mental Health And Save Kid's Lives

“You’re just pissed off. And when you’re pissed off, you lash out.” ― Dennis Lehane
A couple of weeks ago, rumors reached me of a 7th grade boy at one of our local junior high schools taking his life.  I reached out to those I know that would have any information, and it was confirmed that the young man had in fact taken his life.  I reached out to the school to offer my condolences and any help I could, but received no reply.  In fact, I was informed that the teachers had been told not to talk to the students about the incident, and if students had any questions, they were to be referred to the counselors.  I would like to say I was stunned, but that would be a lie.    Once again, an opportunity to educate students about suicide and mental health issues, and to possible save or help some one, was wasted.  

No offense to the counselors at that school, but how many of the students assigned to them have they spent the past ten or twelve weeks with on a daily basis?  How many of those students do they interact with on a daily basis?  How many of those students are comfortable opening up to some one they may not have even spoken to since school started?  It is the teachers that are on the front lines in this battle.  It is the teachers that have earned the trust of the students they are assigned.  It is the teachers that have built relationships with, and they have effectively been  handcuffed.  

My frustration had peaked, and I was ready to launch into a tirade on social media, but then I was asked by the lead counselor at my school for suggestions that might help with this problem.  Please keep in mind that this was the third suicide of a student in the district since June, and it seemed apparent to me that something needed to be done before another student took their life.  I turned o the experts.  Not people with multiple advanced degrees and an alphabet soup of certifications after their name, but the real experts, those that have been touched personally by suicide.  

This time I did turn to social media, in particular, Facebook.  I am a member of a plethora of groups dedicated to raising awareness  and defeating the stigma of suicide and mental health issues.  I am also part of many that provide an open forum and honest discussion for those that have been affected and left behind by suicide.  I also spoke to those that I know personally who have lost loved ones to suicide.  The common thread that seemed to run through all of the conversations were communication and education.

Now before I continue, I want people to know that I am not an expert on suicide.  I am a 52 year old English teacher with a degree in Radio-TV-Film.  What I know is self taught and learned, and before my 13 year old son Peyton took his life in October of 2014, I confess to being as ignorant and uninformed as most.  Like so many people out there that grew up in my generation, suicide and mental health were taboo subjects.  We associated mental health with one word, crazy.  Any one that took medication for or sought professional help for mental illness was crazy.  They would be in the special class with all the other crazies, and all that awaited them in the future was a lifetime of walking up and down the street in a bathrobe screaming that "the end is near!" Nor did we talk about suicide.  Although it has not been a crime, in the United States in over 20 years, there was a time when it was a felony to attempt, or complete,  suicide, and although it was hard to prosecute a dead body, it would be the family of the victim that would suffer the consequences.  

My youth and early adulthood was a time of silence with the old (and outdated) belief that if we didn't talk about something, it didn't exist.  In fact, the first time suicide affected a school I worked at, a letter was put in each teacher's box (pre-email days), where we were told that a student (no name given) had taken their life, we were given explicit instructions not to talk about it, and we were only to send a student to the counselor if they asked.  Even in the days before electronics, most the kids knew well before school started that morning.  There were hugs and sadness in the hallways, but not a word was spoken.  When I asked his English teacher what had happened, she told me that the administration swooped into her classroom, demanded his journal and any work that he had turned in, and left just as fast as they arrived.  Before the first bell rang that day, all trace that this child's shadow had ever darkened the doorway at the school had all but been scrubbed from existence.  There was no memorial page in the yearbook, no moment of silence over the announcements, nothing.  Just an empty desk in a classroom that no one wanted to sit in because of the irrational fear that what ever drove this child to take their life might be contagious.  

It was the desire to purge myself of this ignorance during the horrifying days while Peyton was hospitalized, and in the weeks and months that followed I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about suicide, and more importantly, it’s causes.  Not knowing where to start, I went where most people go when they have a question, Google.  I typed causes of suicide into the search bar and began my journey of learning. I read and read and read and read. I became familiar with the actual causes of suicide, the reasons that people attempt suicide, and the staggering number of people lost each year to suicide. I also read other people's accounts of losing loved ones to suicide, how they dealt with the pain, and how their lives were forever changed. I knew that education was the key, not just for me, but others of my generation, and today's youth.  

The most telling part of how far we had to come was the one and only time my wife Lisa and I attended a local support group for parents who had lost children. As we went around the table, each person or couple, introduced themselves and told how their child had passed. The causes varied, ranging from cancer, to overdoses, to accidents. When it was our turn, and we said that Peyton had taken his life, it was as though the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. People seemed to inch away from us, and all eye contact was averted.  We went to the meeting to find support and understanding, and instead what we found was misunderstanding and ejection. When the meeting was over, the good byes were short and curt. Lisa and I both greed to never go back.

The other reason I saw a need for education were the comments on social media after Peyton's death. His mother and I both told Peyton's story to the media, and it was picked up by news outlets as far away as England. I made the mistake of reading the comments after the stories. Yes, there were quite a few that expressed their sympathy and condolences. Unfortunately, there were those that whether through lack of knowledge or cruelty made some hideous comments. They blamed Jacki and me for Peyton's death, said we were bad parents, that they would have handled things differently, and even classed Peyton a coward for taking the "easy way out".

It wasn't until we found our Survivors of Suicide support group that we truly felt welcome. Every person in that room could empathize with our story, and we were all comfortable sharing our feelings. The biggest thing that we were able to get from our group was knowing that we were not alone on our journey. What I truly found remarkable is how many other people had similar stories. It didn't matter if it was a child, sibling, or spouse that was lost, many of us were blind sided by their suicide. We all look back with 20/20 hindsight thinking about having seen the warning signs, but not knowing what they meant. We all talked about how IF we had known more, IF we had known what to look for, IF we had known how to deal with our loved one, then maybe things would have turned out differently in the end. It was meetings like this that helped me understand what had happened in Peyton's mind.

Facebook proved to be a blessing as well. I was able to read, post, reply, and converse with others who have lost loved ones. Once again, it was an amazing learning experience for me. Sadly, there were so many others who have walked down the same path as me. By talking to these people, I heard their stories, felt their pain, and learned more about battles with mental health issues, substance abuse, bullying, harassment, and ultimately, suicide. After I while, I went from asking questions to answering questions. Not only did it help others, but I found it helped me. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. It was through these interactions that I learned the importance of talking about suicide and mental health as well as educating others.

About a month after Peyton's death, I received an email from Matt Maudlin, a coach at Wunderlich Intermediate School, asking if I would like to tell Peyton's story to the students at Wunderlich's annual character building assemblies. Although I had been teaching for more than 20 years, this would be different for me. I had never stood on a stage and spoken to that many students at once. I was shaky and inconsistent, but I made it through, was applauded, and most of all thanked by the students. I knew then and thee that I needed to keep talking. Each time I spoke it became easier to tell Peyton's story, and the students got more out of it. One day, as I was going through my presentation, I saw a student get up, whisper to his teacher, and both walked out together. I later came to find out that not only had the young man had been thinking about taking his life, but he was in possession of the knife that he was going to use. It was the first time he had heard that he was not alone in what he was feeling, and it was okay to talk about it and ask for help.

So that brigs us back to the question at hand, what can we do to help kids and stop suicide and suicide attempts? The answer is easy, talk and educate. We as a community, need to talk to our kids, and there is no better place than a school. There are those that will say it is the job of the parents, but remember that many of these parents grew up in the same era of ignorance and denial as I did. They are not equipped to do it. There are those that will say it is a waste of valuable class time. To them, I would tell them to take a look at some of the things that learning time are sacrificed for. From pep rallies to class ring assemblies, class time is taken away, so why not something that actually benefits the students. And speaking of students, schools are churning out students that know nothing but academics. They load up on AP and advanced classes in hopes of improving their class rank and getting into a good college. What they don't have is a sense of what is going on in the world around them. They can solve complex equations, quote Shakespeare and Milton, and build robots, but have not learned that it is okay to not be okay.

Some schools have become proactive and are getting out in front of this. They require all students to take classes where they can learn about planning for the future, dealing with adversity, and making smart decisions. They are taught about the symptoms of mental health issues and the warning signs that some one might be suicidal. Unfortunately, there are others that are still reactive. They will call in counselors, answer questions of those brave enough to ask and send them back to class, leaving the others to sit and wonder what is wrong with them, why do they feel so alone, so sad, so willing to die. It is time to break the silence, break the stigma, and save our kids. Let's have a conversation about suicide and mental health and Save Kid's Lives.

Friday, October 6, 2017

True Badasses

Merriam-Webster: badass-chiefly US,  informal + sometimes offensive  :of formidable strength or skill

On sunday, October, 1, 2017, the Houston Texans soundly defeated the Tennessee Titans by an overwhelming score of 57-14.  The highlight of the game was the performance of Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson.  Watson threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in the victory.  Texans fans took to social media to proclaim Watson the savior of Texans football, a man among men, and a total badass.  While Watson is a truly gifted player, an incredible young man (he recently donated his first game check to Texans cafeteria workers who were affected by Hurricane Harvey), and perhaps the future of the Texans franchise, he is not a badass.  Yesterday, I had to opportunity to meet John and Jane*, two authentic, real life badasses.  

I was introduced to John and Jane at a suicide awareness event I attended.  On the surface, John and Jane look like your average suburban high school kids, but their stories are what earned my admiration.  John stood in front of a crowd of strangers and told his story about attempting to take his life.  He talked about his battle with mental health issues and how he finally reached his breaking point.  He spoke openly and honestly of his life since that day, how he is coping and going on with his life.  John is a badass.  Talking about your struggles with mental health takes guts.  In our society, people generally don't want to hear about mental health.  Sadly, they equate mental health with insanity due to the lack of understanding.  Then John talked about attempting to take his life.  He broke down several times, but managed to get his story out.  Not only is John still walking the Earth, but he is recovering.  No doubt his life is a daily struggle, but John perseveres.  He gets up every morning and faces the same demons that have haunted him, but now he is fighting back.  John is a total and complete badass.  

The other badass I met was Jane.  Jane talked about her childhood, how she grew up with a negligent mother, how she lived in poverty, how she was harassed on a daily basis at school because of her clothes and her weight.  Jane told us how she would cut herself to trade one pain she could dictate and control for another she couldn't.  She told about meeting a Bob* her freshman year of high school.  How they bonded, and how that bond grew.  How she finally felt accepted and cared for by Bob even though Bob was fighting his own demons.  Then Jane told about how Bob took his life.  For a teenage girl, Jane was wise beyond her years.  She has lived with more crap in her young life than most people deal with in their entire lives.  But because Jane is a badass, rather than give into her demons, she fought back against them and now uses her story to inspire others.  Jane too, is a total and complete badass.  

Our world is full of badasses, but these badasses don't throw touchdown passes, hit home runs, dunk a basketball, or shred a sick solo on a guitar.  The badasses I'm talking about fight daily to stay live.  The battle to silence the voices in their head that try to convince them that the world would be a better place without them, voices that tell them how happy their family would be to be relieved of the burden they have become.  They live with an emotional pain as crippling as any disease known to man, but they go on despite it.  They live with an illness that is shunned by society, but takes more young lives than cancer and heart disease.  They are told they should just be happy, think positive thoughts, or to stop feeling sorry for themselves.  They have to resist the urge to cut themselves, turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions to ease their pain.  They are young and old. They are male and female.  They are black, white, hispanic, Native American, Asian, and every other race and nationality.  They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, classmates, and coworkers.  They may sit next to you in class, in the office, in a restaurant, or on the bus.  They may wear a badge, a uniform, a suit, or hand me downs.  They may teach your kids, or even be your kids.  

The next time you decide to throw around the term badass, stop and think.  In the United States, approximately 44,000 badasses lose their battle every year, but so many more, like John and Jane, continue to fight on.  For all those out there fighting the battle to stay alive every day, you are my heroes, my badasses. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Back to School with David's Law

I actually started this post  several weeks ago, and meant to have it posted on August 28th, the official first day of school in Texas, but due to Hurricane Harvey, and his effect on the Texas Gulf Coast, I decided to focus on other issues.  As of September 18, there are several districts along the Gulf Coast that are just now opening their doors to students due to damage from Harvey.  Please keep those affected in your thoughts and prayers.  Thank you.

Across the country, schools are welcoming millions of students through their doors. From wide eyed kindergartners to ready for it to all be over seniors, over 50 million students will be enrolled this year.  Unfortunately, at some of these schools, familiar faces will be missing.  It is one of the sad facts of life that people, even young people, pass away.  Whether it is illness, accident, or self-inflicted, we lose students.  However, thanks to the efforts of one courageous mother, students in Texas will return to something different.

Aside from teachers, there will be something new greeting students in Texas, and that is SB 179, better known as David's Law.  The law itself is named after 16 year old David Molak who took his life in January of 2016.  David had been a student at the affluent Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio.  Alamo Heights is a well regarded and award winning school district, and it is considered by many to be the most affluent in Bexar County.  Like any high school, the student body at Alamo Heights has its cliques and pecking order, and at one point, David became the target of an onslaught of harassment through text messages and social media.  Eventually the pain became too much for David to bear, and David took his life.  In the aftermath David's death, Cliff made a post to Facebook that has since gone viral talking about the unrelenting harassment and cyberbullying David received.  He spoke openly and candidly about the effects the bullying had on David,  the heart wrenching pain, and ultimately the consequences of the long term harassment.

After David's death, news came out that David had been bullied and harassed since at least February of the previous year, had switched schools as a result, and had even attempted to take his life before.  In addition, the San Antonio and Alamo Heights police departments, and the Bexar County District Attorney's Office began an investigation into the alleged harassment.  Sadly, after a several month investigation that ended in May of 2016, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood announced that no charges would be filed because the current laws in regards to cyber bullying were too vague.  “If we’re not talking about physical bullying, we’re really talking about harassment, and that is a vague statute,” LaHood said. “Under the harassment statute, we have to have the evidence to back up the different elements of the allegation, and it’s just not there.”

Although it seemed that this was a closed case, changes loomed on the horizon that would bring positive change.  The Alamo Heights Independent School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Kevin Brown, created a Task Force comprised of teachers, district administrators, mental health professionals, technology experts, and medical professionals to assess the effectiveness of current campus practices related to:

  • character education
  • social and emotional wellness, and
  • digital citizenship

They met with parents, students, teachers, counselors, administrators, law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals, legal experts, and bus drivers in order to find out what can be done to improve the existing policies and practices to create a safer and more productive atmosphere, as we'll as address social and emotional wellness.  They set up programs for staff and student education, set up support networks, hired additional personnel to reduce the ratio and allow more personal interactions, addressed the issues of over scheduling and overburdening students in order to decrease stress.  They developed principles of character education to ensure that [their] character development efforts are intentional, on-going, and consistently implemented across campuses, and in forms that students relate to. Implemented a 24-hour Code of Leadership to establish higher expectations for our students and anticipate that all students will participate in extra-curricular activities during their secondary school career, and required all clubs and sports to adhere to it as well.  Most importantly, they updated district policies to state that bullying occurs when a student or group of students engages in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the District, “or any other manner that disrupts the educational environment.”
The findings and suggestions of the Alamo Heights Task Force Report were presented to the school board and became one of the first board policies on Texas to address cyberbullying directly, and included stricter consequences, up to and including expulsion, for the perpetrators.  

in November of 2016 Texas State Senator Jose Menedez and State Representative Ina Minjarez, both from San Antonio, filed Senate Bill 179, also known as David's Law, with the Texas Legislature.  Following many of the guidelines and principles set forth by the Alamo Heights Task Force, the earliest form of the bill would classify cyberbullying as a felony, allow courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online and require public schools to report and intervene in any suspected cyberbullying cases. It also allowed victims to sue cyberbullies’ parents if the parents could have intervened but didn't.  

Just like any law, there was push back from various groups who felt that the law was too severe, or that it focused more on punishment than rehabilitation.  According to sources close to the bill, two of the biggest opponents were the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).  Allegedly, both TASA and TASB  opposed that requirement that schools must investigate incidents of cyberbullying  that occur off campus and not during school hours.  The key to this requirement is that the cyberbullying must interfere with a student's education opportunities, or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a classroom, school, school sponsored, or school related activities.  After all, how can a student concentrate on standardized testing if they are worried about getting their ass kicked after the test?  Another sticking point for both organizations was the requirement for every district to establish a way for students to anonymously report incidents of bullying, even though they many already have a way for students to report other crimes.  In addition, the organizations balked at the requirement that administrators would have to notify the parents of the student who had been bullied immediately (now changed to within three days), as  well as notifying the parents of the bully immediately (but still remains a "reasonable amount of time").  As to why either organization would oppose anything that benefits a student who is being harassed is a true head scratcher, but so it goes.  

Sadly, the other part that ended up being dropped was the ability of the bullied person to recoup financial damages from the bully, or bully's parents.  It seems that this day and age, the one way you can get the attention of a parent is to take money out of their pocket.  

Several of the key components of the law authorizes schools to place the offending bully in an alternative setting, or expel them, if they encourage a student to commit, or attempt to commit, suicide; incite violence against a student through group bullying; or release or threaten to release intimate visual material of a minor or of a stunt who is 18 years of age or older  without the student's consent.  Perhaps if this has been in effect, Eloise would have been able to finish the school year with her friends, while Tootie sat in alternative school or at home.  It allows for civil relief from cyberbullying by relaxing some of the requirements normally applicable for injunctive relief.  It also increases the charges from a Class B Misdemeanor to a Class A Misdemeanor, which could mean up to a year in jail, if the offense is committed against a child under the age of 18 with the intent that the child commit suicide or engage in conduct causing serious bodily injury to the child, or the person violates a temporary restraining order or injunction issued under the new civil provisions of David's Law.  

It is sad that our society has to create laws to directly address situation like David's, or to hold school districts accountable for protecting the students they are entrusted with, or to deal with parents who oblivious or in denial of their child's actions, but we do.  As all students get back to the business of learning, there are many that will benefit from the implementation of David's Law.  They should be able to come to school able to apply themselves to their studies without the worry of harassment.  If that threat does rear it's ugly head, they now have new resources for dealing with it.  I urge all parents out there to familiarize yourself with the elements of David's Law and help educate your kids on how to best utilize the aspects of the law designed to help them, or if they are the bully, inform them of what awaits them in they mistakenly think this law does not apply to them.  Administrators, as we send you our sons and daughters, we expect you to keep them safe from harm, to deal with any issues that they may face, and to let us know when, as a parent, we need to get involved.  And finally, to the students, know that there are people out there who want to help you and are dedicated to doing so.  School should be a safe place for you, and if it isn't, then something can and will be done.  You have the right to show up every day and learn, and thanks to David's Law, that will happen.  

*This entry is dedicated to Maurine Molak, Kim Hess, Kara Valeca-Yocom, Jacki James, Kevin Childers, and so many others who know the pain of losing a child to suicide, but continue to help others in memory of their child.