The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A train was coming and a boy was about to jump. They had seconds to try to stop him.

Stadium-Armory Metro stop in Washington.
Stadium-Armory Metro stop in Washington. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Only later, when he saw the video, did Metro Transit Police Officer Joseph Munno realize how close the train had come to hitting the boy.

If you measured it in time, you would use seconds.

If you measured it in distance, you would use inches.

Munno and fellow officer Megan Blaskewicz were on patrol at the Stadium-Armory Metro station when it happened. They usually walk through the station when school lets out, and on that afternoon, as they tell it, they had walked onto the platform to check on a loud group of high school students. The officers thought the teenagers might be fighting but found they were just playing around.

Then the officers heard shouts. They followed the commotion to the other end of the platform and saw two young men. They were brothers, but the officers didn’t know that yet. They didn’t have time to ask questions or make much sense of the situation when they saw the younger boy toss off his backpack and head toward the edge.

The lights on the platform were blinking, a train was coming and the officers had no doubt the boy was about to jump.

Munno reached out and pulled him back.

“As I grabbed him, the train brushed past us,” Munno told me when I spoke to him and Blaskewicz recently about the incident.

Both said it was not until later — after they learned the boy was 13, and saw a video captured by a Metro camera — that it hit them just how quickly it had all happened and how easily the situation could have turned out differently.

The two recent suicides in Parkland, Fla. — a city that has already experienced so much heartbreak after a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School left 17 people dead last year — has brought needed attention to the issue of suicide among young people in this country. It has forced us to look at alarming statistics that are rising. In the United States, suicides among people between the ages of 10 and 24 account for more than 4,500 deaths per year.

Three tragic deaths reverberate across U.S. amid steady rise in suicides

As we discuss this public health issue, we need to recognize that those losses are only part of a disturbing picture. More young people survive suicide attempts than die of them. Each year, about 157,000 young people between the ages of 10 and 24 end up in emergency rooms across the country for self-inflicted injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even that number falls short of capturing the scope of the problem because there is no way to definitively know how many young people don’t end up in emergency rooms.

There is no way to know how many have stood on a track, or some other ledge, and come inches or seconds away from hurting themselves.

There is no way to know how many right now, at this moment, are waiting for someone to reach out and pull them back.

The only reason I know about the 13-year-old and can tell you about him is because Munno and Blaskewicz received a commendation on Thursday from the general manager of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. The recognition was a brief moment during a larger meeting, but I requested to talk to the officers afterward because their encounter with the teen gives us an important glimpse into what is happening with children in the Washington area. (Metro officials tried contacting the family recently on my behalf but could not reach them.)

A 12-year-old tried to kill himself, police say. Instead, he killed someone else.

The officers said after Munno grabbed the boy in a bear hug, they sat and talked with him at the station for about 45 minutes before taking him to Children’s National Medical Center.

“In the beginning, he didn’t want to tell us his name. He didn’t want to tell us what was going on,” Blaskewicz said. “It took a lot of patience. It took a lot of reassurance, reassuring him we were trying to help.”

Munno said he has learned that telling someone to calm down doesn’t work, so he turned the focus to the boy’s shoes, a pair of Nike Jordan sneakers that Munno also owned.

Soon, the young man was telling them about his favorite football team and how he had joined the marching band so he could travel and see places beyond the Washington region. Both officers said they were impressed with how “mature” and “well spoken” he was for his age. He told them about his hopes of attending college.

He also told them that he had tried to hurt himself before.

The officers spoke with the teenager’s mother and contacted social services to ensure a case worker was assigned to follow up with a school administrator, according to their commendation. Blaskewicz said they also did something else.

“We let him know we’re always here,” she said. “We gave him our contact info, in case he ever wants to reach out to us.”

In today’s society, she said, people are sometimes afraid to get involved in other people’s lives. But “if you see something that might be a little off, just reach out. You could be reaching out to that person at the right time. It could make a world of difference,” she said.

Munno said he learned from his time in the military, a population that also has a high suicide rate, that people “need to know someone does care.”

The incident happened in November, and in December, the officers delivered a gift to the boy’s home. It included a jersey of his favorite team.

They have also seen him since at the Metro stop.

Most young people, when they are in groups, want nothing to do with the police, Munno said. He recalled how one afternoon, the teenager was with his friends, but that didn’t matter: He walked up to Munno, and this time, the boy was the one who reached out.

He shook the officer’s hand.

To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

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