As Winston Churchill High School mourned the loss of a second student in less than two months, more than 150 students converged on a Potomac, Md., park hoping to forge a stronger sense of community while they honored those who died.
Balloons festooned a goal post, and music played as students mingled. The recent gathering had the feel of a spring picnic — three-legged races, blankets spread out on the grass — but with a deeper sense of purpose.
Churchill has lost two of its own since February: Alyson “Alex” Baumann, 15, a sophomore who died Feb. 25, and Anna “Maya” Castillo, 17, a junior who died April 17. Both families have confirmed that the teenagers took their own lives.
Anna loved art and wanted to be a therapist, her father, Victor, said.
“She really cared about helping people,” he said. “She was phenomenal. She had a big heart.”
Alyson, an artistic and musical teenager with sparkling blue eyes, wanted to work in the equestrian world.
“She knew her passion in life was with horses,” said Lissa Baumann, the teen’s mother. “We used to call her the horse whisperer.”
The coming-together among their classmates at the high-performing Montgomery County high school April 24 was intended to unify the student body as teenagers reeled from the losses. There was pizza and laughter. As darkness fell, there was song and candlelight.
“We wanted to make one giant support system for everyone to fall back on and to prevent anything like this from happening again,” said Sara Heimlich, 16, a sophomore active in student government who helped organize the event.
Montgomery school officials said they stepped up offers of student support and counseling immediately after the deaths, as is the system’s practice. They said a school-based program that works to prevent suicide is planning a wellness day this month at Churchill.
School district leaders say that as they respond to such tragedies, they look to advice posted by federal health officials, including consulting with the family involved about memorials and seeking ideas to remember students in positive ways.
But the 10th-graders who organized the gathering, called U-Nite 2016, said they felt an urgency to act and did so on their own — looking to acknowledge the losses and form closer bonds. “We really knew that something had to change,” Heimlich said.
At their event, one long table was adorned with a banner that said, “You are not alone.” It was arrayed with sticky notes so that students could anonymously post messages about their own challenges and struggles, and other students could post answers.
“I have no close friends,” one teen wrote.
“I’ll be the one,” someone answered, leaving a phone number.
“Me, too,” another chimed in.
One student wrote of wanting a boyfriend.
“Me too,” an 11th-grader wrote back. “You don’t need one, though. Friends are better.”
At the event, some students played a speed-friendship game. Some wrote messages onto balloons they released. It was a way, one organizer said, to let go of secrets, fears and burdens.
Drew Ingall, 16, a sophomore, walked around with a name tag offering “Free Hugs and Advice — Talk to Me.”
Two people took him up on the offer, he said, one speaking about schoolwork and the other about general anxiety.
Andrea Lewis, mother of a 10th-grader, was impressed as she watched.
“It’s fabulous that students are being proactive about bringing people together,” she said. “It’s really part of the grieving process, in a very positive way.”
Lewis said the school needs to do more to “recognize the loss and help students through it.” It is clear many students want more support, she said.
School district officials said that it is always difficult to help students process a classmate’s death and that staff are concerned about students’ well-being, standing ready to support them. Churchill Principal Joan Benz did not respond to requests for comment.
Last school year, three student deaths countywide were known suicides, according to a recent school board memo; this school year, there were three as of Feb. 29. The issue is not unique to Montgomery. In neighboring Fairfax County, W.T. Woodson High School recorded six apparent suicides in a period of three years.
Nationally, many schools aren’t educated about how to address such deaths, said Ryan Newcomb of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “It’s important that they do talk about it . . . and address the death in a safe way that allows students to realize that depression is treatable and suicide is preventable.”
The night of the gathering, Susan Rosenstock — who lost her son to suicide — talked to the teenagers about five warning signs of emotional suffering: personality change, agitation, withdrawal, lack of self care and hopelessness.
Three years ago, her son Evan, then 16, was a popular basketball player at Churchill who fell into a depression after a severe back injury. After his death May 20, 2013, four students individually approached her about a basketball fundraiser, leading to the creation of a national suicide prevention organization called Umttr.
Hearing about the deaths at Churchill was excruciating, she said, but she was proud of the student activism. “They were bothered by this, and at 15 years old, they are taking the initiative to do something to heal,” she said. “They don’t want to lose another friend.”
As the evening went on, students took turns performing and speaking.
Hana Mangat, 16, president of the sophomore class, mentioned the school’s high test scores, its accomplished lacrosse team and its “fancy cars.” Students feel pressure to succeed at high levels, she said.
But she urged her classmates to be friendly to people in school hallways, to laugh at someone’s joke even if it’s not very funny.
“The Churchill that I see here tonight is one that reassures me that my school is much more than just a bunch of good grades,” she said. “I see genuine, good people that will go out of their way to make you smile.”
As the gathering ended, in the light of candles, they silently remembered classmates they lost: Maya and Alex recently, and Evan before them.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.