Laura Sell, 16, said she came across a "stupid" sheet of paper at Clear Lake High School one day this week. On it someone had drawn the universal no-parking circle and slash. Within it, a stick figure held a gun to its head.
One evening this week, while students performed the musical "P.T. Barnum" in the auditorium, nearly 1,000 distraught parents gathered elsewhere in the school to seek explanations for a tragedy that was overwhelming them.
Since Aug. 9, six teen-agers had killed themselves -- three dropouts, each 19, and three younger students. And now there were rumors of suicide pacts, drug-caused deaths, stabbing suicides in the school itself and fear of a copycat syndrome similar to a score of suicides in Plano, Tex., last year.
"It's frightening when something like this gets started. It's like a disease," said Wayne Teutsch, Clear Lake's varsity football coach.
In an atmosphere fraught with guilt, the parents pressed a panel of school administrators and counselors to concede particular causes: drugs, tougher grading standards, lax discipline at home, lack of spiritual faith. One nervous student interrupted the meeting to blame the deaths on a general "lack of communication."
But the panelists gave the parents no simple answers, no magical links among the six suicides.
"Part of it is purely probability, coincidence," said Rion Hart, a Houston psychologist on the panel. "In any given Thursday night in Houston, there may be no auto accidents or 14."
"I suspect that many of you have found that your kids have had thoughts of suicide," said Janel Miller, a psychologist who has worked within the school district for several years. "There are no causes we can give to you."
Clear Lake school officials have formed a six-member psychological task force and have turned for help to the Houston school district, which last year began a suicide prevention program.
The president of the Houston Psychiatric Society has joined the task force, and a dozen psychiatrists from that group have agreed to counsel area families who lost children. Psychologists are training the faculty to detect abnormally depressive behavior and holding assemblies to urge students to report unusually saddened classmates.
But Superintendent John Ward told the parents' gathering: "Don't get comfortable, because we don't have the expertise. We could have 100 psychiatrists in the school and this could still happen again."
In the meantime, Clear Lake has begun examining its own adolescent growing pains. The Clear Lake area is actually nine small cities that boomed when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration built the Johnson Space Center in the open spaces about 20 miles southeast of Houston in the early 1960s.
About one of every five workers in this 83,000-person community is employed by NASA, officials estimate. Many others in the predominantly white, well-educated population came to the area to be close to their high-tech engineering jobs, the reputable schools and the resort-like parks and lake.
"The whole issue of having to prove your competence and independence at that age leads one to hiding problems for a much longer time," said psychiatrist Ken Wetcher, who counseled the best friend of one of the suicide victims.
"We are a city that sees black and white and no gray," said a mother who asked to be unidentified. "Everything is too fast, too slick, too quick. It's called immediate gratification."
Sally Forehand, who moved with her computer scientist husband to the Clear Lake area two years ago, said, "This is Texas and you're air-conditioned. You're all in your own little homes. People run from their cars and go into their houses."
What apparently scares parents and administrators most is the almost romantic contagion effect of six suicides. Indeed, the first suicide victim, Warren Edward "Paul" Kuns, had known the two subsequent dropout suicides casually.
Kuns shot himself on a highway access road Aug. 9. On Sept. 17, Sean Woods, 19, shot himself in a neighbor's front yard. He had attended Kuns' funeral and had sunk into a deep depression, his family told reporters.
The third dropout, who had known Woods through a drug rehabilitation program, hanged himself from the top railing of his home's staircase.
Two days later, on Oct. 6, sophomore Lisa Lynn Schatz, 15, shot herself. She reportedly was despondent over leaving her former school in Alabama. Police said she apparently knew none of the previous suicide victims and might not have heard of their deaths. Within the community, though, it was her death that brought on a seemingly vain search for pattern and explanation.
On Oct. 9, Gary Shivers, 16, upset over his parents' divorce, hanged himself. And two days after that, Darren Thibodeaux, 14, died of carbon monoxide poisoning, the first victim from the district's other high school, Clear Creek.
The wave of suicides in Clear Lake has ended at least for now. But recently the anguish of child suicide came to another community -- a school district 30 miles north of downtown Houston.
On Oct. 12, police disclosed, Shayne King, 10, hanged himself from his bunk bed. And this week, Spring High School student Felicia Handy, 16, was found shot through the chest with a gun her parents kept on their nightstand.
Spring High counselors planned additional faculty training in the detection of suicidal behavior, but they said they have not contacted the Clear Lake area schools because there appears to be no link with the suicides there.
"Each youngster is different," said Jerry Smith, a Spring schools coordinator.