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Parkland again faces tragedy after two apparent suicides: ‘Trauma doesn’t just go away’

Suzanne Devine Clark places painted stones at a memorial outside Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, the one-year anniversary of the school shooting. (Wilfredo Lee/AP) (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

PARKLAND, Fla. — The Parkland parents were insistent. They would not leave without a plan.

It was Sunday afternoon, one year, one month and 10 days since their children had been among the 17 people killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Now their Parkland community was again coping with loss — this time death by suicide.

A former cheerleader and recent graduate, 19-year-old Sydney Aiello, took her life on March 17 after struggling with survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder, her mother said. Six days later, a sophomore who authorities have not identified died by apparent suicide.

Within hours after word began circulating of the second teen’s death, 65 people gathered at Eagles’ Haven, a community wellness center scheduled to open next month, talking about what to do next.

In addition to school officials and community leaders, there were six parents in attendance who lost their children in the Parkland massacre. And they were adamant that the group could not leave for the night without a clear plan of action.

They came up with a new campaign called “Just ask, and just listen,” a list of six questions that parents can ask their children every day about mental health and suicidal thinking.

“Those are difficult questions to ask a child, but it’s very important to ask them,” said Sarah Franco, a mental-health advocate in Parkland and the inaugural director at Eagles’ Haven.

“They were really the strongest of advocates, the parents of the children who died, to say we cannot leave this room without some type of message to parents,” Franco said. “They realize there’s a chance to help these kids, where for their children, it’s too late.”

The extraordinary number of kids who have endured school shootings since Columbine

Aiello’s mother said her daughter had struggled in the aftermath of the Parkland mass shooting. The circumstances surrounding the second student’s death are unclear, and mental-health advocates and those who study suicide cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

But in the South Florida community, as they have done before, parent and student activists turned this new trauma into a call for change — immediately placing the two deaths in the context of the 17 other lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last year.

“17 + 2,” tweeted several activists, joining community members publicly and privately calling for a reexamination of the mental-health services available to those affected by the massacre last year. Former students, now scattered across the state and country, used group chats — their lifelines since college took them away from Parkland — to check in on hometown friends, and the Stoneman Douglas parent association shared a list of mental-health resources online.

Almost immediately, the conversation inside and outside Parkland became a reflection on trauma — what it looks like, how it manifests and why communities should implement programs to treat it in the short and long term.

“Trauma doesn’t just go away after the event is over,” said Nicole Hockley, who is a co-founder of the gun-violence prevention organization Sandy Hook Promise and lost her son, Dylan, in the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn. “This is a part of you for the rest of your life. You never know what’s going to trigger you.”

On Monday, the father of a first-grader killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School was discovered dead in an apparent suicide.

At Eagles’ Haven, even those who have been critical of the institutions within Parkland praised the results of Sunday’s gathering.

“Sometimes it takes a tragedy to move the community to action,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina was killed in the Parkland shooting. Petty last year founded the Walk Up Foundation, focused on school safety, and attended the roundtable on Sunday.

“I’ve been a critic of the school district, their preparation, their lack of preparation on school safety, and I’ve been critical of how they’ve handled the aftermath of the shooting,” Petty said. “But I was pleased yesterday to see several representatives from the school district at our community meeting, contributing.”

The Columbia Protocol, a list of questions that help determine an individual’s suicide risk, is being circulated among parents.

“I hope that the message we all took away was what we were doing before wasn’t working,” Petty said. “So now it’s time to try something new.”

David Schonfeld, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement at the University of Southern California, has been working as a consultant to the Broward County school district in the year since the Parkland shootings and has helped coordinate mental-health recovery efforts in the aftermath of some of the country’s most devastating mass shootings. He said the school system, more than any other he has worked with, has been “open to ideas about how to do their job and how to change and try things that will help the students and the community.”

“It’s a tragedy when someone kills themselves,” Schonfeld said. “But sometimes these occur even though everyone is trying and caring and offering support.”

Some former students described interactions with school-provided grief counselors who seemed undertrained to deal with PTSD and with teachers who were insensitive to their initial trauma. “Put your grief in your pocket,” a teacher allegedly told one student. Though more than a dozen grief counselors turned the media center at Stoneman Douglas into a mental-health hub, former students told The Washington Post that there were no conversations about suicide prevention in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

“We didn’t have any sort of conversation about mental health in our school,” said Hayden Korr, 18, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas last spring and was diagnosed with PTSD in the first semester of her freshman year at the University of South Florida. “A lot of teachers wanted to move on, move past it, to put our grief away.”

Korr said she was struggling so much at school that she moved home after her first semester and is taking classes online while seeing a therapist in Parkland.

“I feel like everyone has forgotten that we are still in pain, that it’s still so fresh to us,” Korr said. “Honestly, in the field of mental health, we’ve been let down. We’re still grieving. It can’t just go away.”

Demitri Hoth, who graduated from Stoneman Douglas last year and now attends college in Miami, said he and his friends worked with the counselors who were made available at locations such as the school’s media center and library. His experience was positive, he said, and the counselors were “very professional.”

Faculty members were also supportive, Hoth said, and he called his teachers “amazing.” He and his friends had one negative experience with an insensitive teacher, he said, but he added that the situation was quickly handled by the administration after they reported it.

Morning intercom announcements would inform students about mental-health resources available at the school, as would teachers, Hoth recalled.

Spencer Blum, a senior at the school, said that the services available to students now were not as “intense” as last year but that help was still available at a wellness center where they could speak to therapists or counselors. But he said some students felt that there was a “stigma” surrounding those services.

Blum experiences panic attacks, and when a fire alarm went off a few weeks ago, he remembers going “numb.” He started “speed walking” to his favorite teacher’s temporary classroom, where he found and hugged her. “I was shaking rapidly, really shaking, and I didn’t stop shaking for 45 minutes,” Blum said. “I was hyperventilating and crying.”

“For me, even though I know it’s a fire alarm, in my head, subconsciously, someone’s going to die, or I’m going to die or someone’s going to get shot,” he said.

Hannah Karcinell, 19, survived the shooting last year and is now studying political science at a university in Massachusetts. She said she hasn’t been able to sleep the past few nights.

“I’ve been worried about who is going to be next,” she said. “That’s all I’ve been thinking about.”

She, too, has flashbacks to the shooting when she hears doors slam or fire alarms sound. She still sees a therapist, and she went home last month for the anniversary of the shooting.

Karcinell said she is encouraged, though, by the way the Parkland community has come together again over the past week.

“People are openly talking about it,” she said. “A lot of people are reaching out.”

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.

Epstein and Mettler reported from Washington. William Wan in Washington contributed to this report.