Teachers are always looking for ways to give students “real world” experiences to enhance learning. But when sophomore Megan Fickert took her own life on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010, Fairmont’s staff had to figure out how to help students deal with a tragic reality that’s difficult for people of any age to handle.
In a school of more than 2,400 teens, things could have spun out of control, but that didn’t happen at Fairmont. Although the suicide of a student is always difficult, Fairmont’s administration earned praise from Dayton Daily News columnist Mary McCarty for how it handled such a challenging situation and helped students deal with their grief and confusion.
On the night of Megan’s death, Fairmont Principal Dan VonHandorf immediately sent an “all call” recording to every teacher to inform them of the incident and ask them to attend a meeting before school the next morning. At 7:30 a.m. Thursday, VonHandorf, the four unit principals and the Fairmont counseling staff helped to prepare teachers for the task of telling students what happened. VonHandorf said he wanted to avoid announcing such news over the public-address system. Instead, he asked advisory teachers to explain the situation to their students.
Fairmont staff members were on the lookout that Thursday, and any student who appeared to be struggling was encouraged to seek counseling. In addition to the Fairmont counseling staff, the school brought in counselors from South Community Behavioral Healthcare and Cea Elliott, a trained grief counselor and wife of Guidance Department Chair David Elliott. VonHandorf said about 140 students took advantage of the counseling opportunity that day.
Because school wasn’t in session on the following Friday, David Elliott volunteered to come in on his day off and open the Fairmont library so students could come in to talk to counselors or just hang out in the library if they didn’t want to be alone.
VonHandorf, in only his second year as Fairmont’s principal, credits his “great staff” for helping him guide Fairmont through some somber days. “In a time like that, you have to lean on those people for their wisdom and knowledge, and I was able to do that,” he said.
Students also took the initiative to find ways to cope and to comfort Megan’s family. In each of her classes on that Thursday, students wrote messages to Megan and her family on paper sitting on her desk to help alleviate the pain of seeing an empty desk. “Her family really liked that idea,” said VonHandorf.
Some of Megan’s friends also held a candlelight vigil for her at Fairmont’s Spirit Bell a week after her death. They told funny stories so people could hear positive things about Megan’s life. About 120 students came to show their support, and her family and friends spoke at the event. “I think the clear message from her family was that there are hundreds of students who care about each and every one of our students here,” VonHandorf said. “We need to be a little more supportive of each other, and make sure people know it.”
What a school can learn from a suicide
Even with a traumatic event like a suicide, many Fairmont students and faculty members believe that something important has come out of it. Fairmont peer mediator Amy Hartmann sees this as an eye-opening experience. “A suicide gives a school a lot more attention and creates a lot more drama,” she said. “But it’s also a good lesson for people to learn that it does happen in real life.”
Fairmont Guidance Counselor Larry Lamb said he thinks Fairmont students may now be more likely to notice unusual behavior. “It’s hard to say that anything positive comes out of a suicide. But if anything does, it’s that we’re all a little more sensitive to the warning signs, a little more aware of what kids are going through and a little more likely to act when we see something that doesn’t look right. Kids are going to be more vigilant.”
Another Fairmont counselor, Lois Isaacs, also sees the importance of lessons learned from suicide. “If there is any good that can come of suicide, it’s that we examine our support system and what we’re doing and become very sensitive to people’s needs,” she said. “We reach out to each other. It makes you do that because it’s so tragic. It shakes you up.”
After Megan’s death, the Fairmont staff took the steps they believed were necessary to cope and return the school to a healthy state. “You can never handle a situation like that well,” said VonHandorf. “But I think we handled it about as well as you could hope to.”