In some ways, it has been a normal academic year for Wawasee High School. The prom was earlier this month, seniors are anxiously awaiting the moment they walk across the platform to be given their diplomas during graduation June 8 and the choir department performed the annual spring production this past weekend.
Many positive things have occurred, too, such as just last week Wawasee being named a Four Star School by the Indiana Department of Education. In late April, 44 more students were inducted into the Academic Hall of Fame and next week is the annual honors program where many more students will be honored.
These are just a few examples of the good things happening at the high school.
A few months ago, though, it was anything but normal as administrators, teachers, parents, counselors and others dealt with the harsh reality of two student suicides. Others have also attempted suicide.
During the February school board meeting, WHS Principal Don Harman gave a report to the board about actions and measures taken and planned in response to the deaths. It was a lengthy list and included a combination of speakers addressing students, counseling, meetings with students, activities and more. Though a few items are ongoing, much of the list has been implemented.
Well known youth motivational speaker Jeff Yalden spoke to the student body in February and that same evening spoke to the adults. Harman believes Yalden spoke sincerely and directly and has made a connection with students others would not have been able to do.
“He speaks to the students on their level,” Harman said, and some students have stayed in contact with Yalden through Facebook, Twitter and his website. “I believe Jeff has a soft spot in his heart for Wawasee and has been deeply touched by what has happened,” he added.
Also in February, Syracuse-Wawasee Area Ministerial Association held a community prayer service on a Sunday evening in the high school auditorium.
The school Pow Wow Carnival held in March was not necessarily a direct response to the deaths, but it proved to bring many students together for a wide range of fun activities and they clearly enjoyed the evening. “There was something that night for everyone,” he said.
Students created videos using the production studio at the high school with positive messages of encouragement for their fellow students. Some of the videos were posted on YouTube and dealt with topics such as bullying.
The “Break the Grey” ministry program was presented in April and addressed the topic of suicide, Harman noted.
Harman has met with a group of parents twice and hopes to meet again with the group soon. “It’s important to get feedback from parents on how we can get kids more involved in school,” he said.
Counselors, mental health therapists and teachers have been more actively involved with students and Harman praised their efforts. “Their door is always open,” he said. Many students have also asked how they can help, he added.
Harman strongly emphasized the aspect of finding ways to get students more involved in supporting their fellow students and finding a connection to the school somewhere. “I really believe every student should be connected to at least one person in the building,” he said.
For an example, when he met with parents he suggested the possibility of forming either a hunting or fishing club for students. Though it may be out of the box thinking, there is a strong interest locally in hunting and fishing and if it connects students to the school more, it is worth it, he noted. “We want to get all of our students involved and not just in athletic things,” he said.
The 2012-13 school year has brought a learning curve for teachers, administrators and staff. Many have learned they need to pay closer attention to the students when they say, for example, they are having a bad day. “We follow up more on student comments than we did in the past,” Harman commented. “I believe we have learned we need to slow down and listen to kids.”
He added he and other adults have learned from the students that they wish their lives would slow down and someone would take time to talk to or listen to them. “We live in such a fast-paced society now and they (students) wish everything was not so fast-paced,” said Harman.
There is more pressure on teens in this generation, he added, and some have no choice but to go to work to help support their families. “It is just not easy being a teenager now,” he said, and many are living in difficult family environments.
For the last few months, things have been calmer at the school. But Harman acknowledged Wawasee is dealing with society’s problems, as all other schools are, and some of those problems are out of their control.
“I certainly don’t want to see it (suicide) happen again,” he said, “but I just can’t guarantee it won’t happen again.”