Superintendent Betsy Webb of the Bangor School Department speaks outside of Bangor High School this fall. The school department's response to a student's recent suicide has sparked criticism from public officials, parents and students. Credit: Eesha Pendharkar

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at (888) 568-1112 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).

Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler came onto the school’s intercom the morning of Nov. 20 with a somber announcement: a high school senior had died by suicide the day before.

“The family wanted me to share this information with you to help students begin to confront this loss in their own way,” Butler said, naming the student and telling students that anyone who needed support could find a “supportive staff person” in a particular area of the school throughout the day.

But the announcement of a student’s suicide to 1,200 students over the school’s loudspeaker and other elements of Bangor High School’s response went against the advice of mental health professionals with expertise in helping students digest the news of a peer’s suicide.

The response has prompted public criticism from officials in Bangor — including the City Council’s new chair — and parents and students who said the school mishandled a sensitive situation for which experts have developed clear guidelines to help students grieve and reduce the risk of more suicides.

Fifteen percent of Maine high school students seriously considered suicide in 2017, and 7 percent attempted it, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall, Maine’s rate of suicide is higher than the national average, and it’s the second-most common cause of death nationwide for people between ages 10 and 34, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.

“Even if they said the words right [over the intercom], that’s not the way” to communicate the news of a suicide, said Jenna Mehnert, executive director of the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Ideally, you are able to have adults in small groups of kids. Over a loudspeaker, you don’t have that ability to engage.”

Bangor High School parents learned of the death near the end of the school day, in an email sent around 2 p.m. That announcement included no information about how parents could discuss the loss with their kids — another breach of the standard protocol for responding to student suicides developed by three national organizations.

In addition, the Bangor School Department ignored offers of help from at least two outside organizations with mental health expertise. The clinical director of one of those organizations, Greg Marley of NAMI Maine, said he called Butler the morning of Nov. 20 to offer whatever help the school needed, but didn’t hear back.

“It is very, very unusual of them not to respond at all,” said Marley, who reaches out to schools whenever a student dies by suicide.

Superintendent Betsy Webb declined to speak with the BDN about the school department’s response to the suicide, but she sent a transcript of Butler’s school-wide announcement.

Breaking difficult news

The “After a Suicide” tool kit developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the Education Development Center has expert recommendations for every component of a school’s response to suicide.

It recommends that any communication the school sends out refer parents to resources that can help them discuss suicide with their children.

“Teachers are extremely important supports, mentors and role models but the buck stops with parents, not schools,” said Jennifer Isherwood, whose daughter is a junior at Bangor High.

It also recommends that students find out about the death in person, in small groups. “Do not notify students by PA (public address) system or in a large assembly,” the guide reads.

When students learn in small groups from adults they know, those adults can monitor how students are reacting to the news, Marley said.

“If it’s identified that someone’s really shaken, family should be contacted,” he said. “That’s pretty standard practice. It’s never one-size-fits-all.”

The student’s suicide came just over a week after a Brewer High School senior died in a car crash. In that situation, Brewer schools Superintendent Gregg Palmer said, high school advisers informed groups of a dozen or fewer students in person, and allowed students time to react, ask questions and process the information.

In Bangor, Wells Mundell-Wood, 16, was in her Spanish class when she heard the announcement and was shocked that the news had come over the PA system. None of her teachers acknowledged the death in classes that day, and they just went on with a normal school day, she said.

“It was devastating to see that something that really needs to be emphasized and talked about just kind of being brushed away by all of my teachers,” she said. “If we continue to foster this environment, kids are going to see the people they look up to brushing off things like this and believe that’s what they should do, too.”

Even though the school made sure students knew that guidance counselors were available to anyone who needed to talk all day, it was not enough, Mundell-Wood said.

“What would be a good idea is to have a professional to come in and maybe talk to people in small groups,” she said.

Meanwhile, Ellie MacMillan, 17, didn’t think the school did anything wrong.

“I think that was the best decision for the school at the time, to do it over the announcements,” she said. Butler “was very thoughtful and compassionate with the words he said. It was a very difficult situation that he was put through.”

When Isherwood picked her daughter up from school that afternoon and heard about the intercom announcement, she called Butler and wrote him a follow-up email. She attached her daughter’s handwritten reaction to the announcement.

“I think her point about the suddenness of the announcement is key; without warning, this mode of communication can blindside some students, triggering emotions that are difficult to process, even when teachers and counselors are there,” she wrote.

A broader outcry

Word soon began circulating that Bangor High School students had learned of a peer’s suicide over the intercom. Parents and some public officials in the city took to social media to criticize the response.

After hearing from parents and not receiving any official communication from the school department, Clare Davitt, the new chair of the Bangor City Council, said she wanted an explanation.

Around noon on Nov. 21, Davitt reached out to Webb over Twitter, providing a link to the “After a Suicide” tool kit and calling the announcement of a suicide over the intercom “horrifying and incredibly inappropriate.”

“Please ask those concerned to contact the high school so further support and clarification can be provided,” Webb said in her only public statement on the topic. “The top priority is support for all.”

In an interview, Davitt said the school department should have learned from past student suicides.

“It has happened before. Kids have killed themselves before. There should be a learning and response that’s come out of that,” she said. “To me, that was just the most tone-deaf thing.”

City Councilor Angela Okafor joined Davitt in criticizing the school department.

“I felt the need to speak out because of the parents’ reaction,” she said. “The way it was announced was scary to me. I just imagined my kids or myself being in that position hearing the news.”

When Bangor schools sent out a follow-up email to parents with some more information, Okafor made another public post praising the efforts.

“That is not enough, but at least it’s good to see steps taken,” she said.

School administrators held a meeting for parents Tuesday night to further discuss the school’s response. A reporter was not allowed to attend.

Bangor School Committee Member John Hiatt said he had no information to provide parents who reached out to him with questions.

“I think it’s important that we — the school committee — put resources in place. One of them is making sure that if students need to talk to someone they have someone to talk to,” he said. “I feel a great sense of failure and a great sense of loss. The communication piece was awful.”