Some criticize Darien’s response after deaths of 3 students: ‘We’re in crisis mode’

Darien High School on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Darien High School on Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

Raga Justin / Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — As the town reels from the deaths of three Darien High School students in the past two months, some criticized the district’s response during a Board of Education meeting Tuesday night.

Board of Education Chair David Dineen said the community was in crisis, saying the district must focus on the “whole health” of students, including their mental, social and emotional wellbeing. But some students and parents who spoke criticized aspects of the district’s response and called for more comprehensive solutions.

Constant achievement and the school’s high ranking “all means nothing, if the anxiety, stress, pressure and culture to constantly compete and win leads to a breakdown in the mental and physical health of our students and leads to suicides,” Dineen said. “That’s a tough word to hear. It’s a tough word to understand.”

Hayden Thorsen, a 16-year-old sophomore, died by suicide last weekend. His death followed those of 17-year-old Matthew McEvoy, who also died by suicide, and 16-year-old Henry Farmer, who died of medical complications.

The board has been communicating with the first selectman, religious leaders, emergency services and community organizations, Dineen said. It has also brought in experts to determine the district’s next steps in trauma counseling and suicide prevention.

Scott McCarthy, director of student services, told school board members that “a major risk factor in a community for a secondary death by suicide is completion of the first” and referred to two of the student losses as a “suicide cluster.”

Guidance after a crisis such as this is more complex and nuanced and requires specialized mental health support, McCarthy said.

“It pains me to say that we’re in a death-by-suicide cluster,” board member Dennis Maroney said. “It’s really difficult to say and comprehend even.”

Some who spoke pushed the school board to rethink the district’s culture, saying students are prioritizing their academic and athletic success before their mental health.

“To say that I and the majority of our student body are struggling, is an understatement. Each death has had a compounding effect on my mental health for different reasons,” said Miller Ward, a sophomore at Darien High School.

“We need a long-term solution integrated into our daily life, not a tidal wave of crisis mitigation, and not another seminar or big group talk,” Ward said.

Ward told board members that teachers need training to cohesively address the situation instead of pushing for normalcy. She asked for more outlets for “difficult conversations” at all levels of the district, including middle and elementary schools.

In an emotional statement, Livie Punishill, who is the student representative on the school board, told board members that students felt the administration mishandled the immediate aftermath of last weekend’s death.

Also, the school’s culture of academic pressure is inhibiting students from grieving properly, Punishill said.

“Multiple students said to me that they feared that they were going to have to ‘put their emotions on the backburner’ to prepare themselves for exams,” she said.

“So as we are talking about the environment that we are creating for our students ... I ask you to think about the fact that instead of processing their own grief and emotions right now, students are worried about how their emotions are going to impact their academics.”

Though nothing was finalized, board members discussed an incoming task force that could convene over the summer as part of the district’s long-term suicide prevention work.

Organizations that provide grief counseling will also be at the high school this week to help the high school’s crisis team, officials said.

Jessica Welt, as clinical director of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, told board members that when a death occurs, it is normal to feel strong emotional reactions. But most impacted people return to normalcy within weeks and no longer need the kind of crisis care Darien is providing now, Welt said.

She suggested the school board consider setting up a school-based health center, which offers therapy services by dedicated mental health professionals while embedded on a campus.

Board member Tara Wurm said she was “frustrated” by a seeming lack of action on long-term mental health support, urging other board members to stay committed to moving resources into that area even after the initial crisis.

“I’ve realized we’re in crisis mode. ... But we also have to look at, once we get through crisis mode, what are the resources available to the students? Because they’re telling us they’re not enough,” Wurm said. “And if we look to other towns, we are not doing what they’re doing. So I really don’t want to see this be, ‘Let’s come together in crisis mode and congratulate everyone for doing a good job’ — and then drop the ball.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-273-8255.