Woodson High parents seek action at Fairfax County school after six student suicides

In the aftermath of a series of student suicides at W.T. Woodson High School, parents are urging Fairfax County schools administrators to help the teens cope with stress at the high-performing school.

Six teens at the school have died by suicide during the past three years, including two students who died within a day of each other in February. The deaths have shocked the school community and have left parents, teachers and students searching for answers.

“It has been a school that has gone through so much,” said Fairfax County School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), whose son is a Woodson senior.

Fairfax school leaders have sought to allay concern, holding gatherings for parents about mental health resources and working to ensure that students know they have people they can talk to if they feel overstressed or desperate. On May 17, the school district plans to have a countywide summit on teen stress and resiliency at Hayfield Secondary School.

McLaughlin said the event will include separate sessions on homework load, stressors related to advanced courses, the demands of high school sports and suicide prevention. While most Fairfax high schools have one school psychologist and one social worker on the staff, McLaughlin said the school will have additional mental health staffers on campus for the rest of the academic year. She did not specify how many.

“We’ve talked about it enough,” McLaughlin said. “Now, what concrete steps can we see the community as a whole start to take, because it involves not just the schools but also our families? Hopefully, what you’ll see is a demonstration that we really do value student health and well-being.”

Woodson parent Bonnie Clements said that the school, which annually earns high rankings for achievement, puts too much emphasis on Advanced Placement courses.

“They are under too much pressure,” said Clements, whose son is a senior. “It’s not all about how many AP classes you took.”

In a letter to parents last week, Woodson principal Jeff Yost wrote that counselors, psychologists and social workers have been meeting with English classes to address concerns with students directly and to offer services. School counselors also will meet with seniors before graduation to seek feedback on bettering the lives of students at Woodson.

“We are deeply committed to supporting our students and families who may continue to have concerns following the losses our community has experienced,” Yost wrote. He declined to comment further when contacted this week.

In the meantime, some parents are looking to bridge the gap of services for students. Concerned about the effects of the recent suicides, Bob Phillips and Carol Davis, parents of two Woodson students, formed a group called Community of Solutions that aims to help create a safety net for teens who are struggling with thoughts of suicide.

Phillips said he worked with Nick Stuban, one of the Woodson teens who committed suicide in 2011, in Boy Scouts.

“The school was doing a lot of the work to prevent further loss of life,” Phillips said. “The parents and the public health department didn’t feel pulled in quite as well.”

The group holds regular meetings to hear from parents and students. One meeting in March was attended by nearly 60 people.

The community group also has worked with the public health department to train students in mental health first aid. About 40 students across the county have learned how to spot signs of distress in classmates. The group also is creating a package of resources for teens who want help, allowing them to more easily access counseling services and get appropriate treatment.

The community group also is urging school counselors and social workers to get more involved with students before problems arise.

“Students often don’t know those folks until they need them,” Davis said.

Woodson PTSO President Penny Carey-Stratton said the organization is hoping to collaborate more closely with Community of Solutions. Carey-Stratton noted that parents have been deeply affected by the stories of five Woodson families who spoke to The Washington Post about how teen suicide has changed their lives.

“They feel for the parents of these kids,” Carey-Stratton said. “They can’t imagine being that parent . . . and I hope everyone knows we still care about them.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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