PARKLAND, Fla. – In the span of one week, two teenagers have died by suicide in Parkland, the community still grieving the loss of 17 teachers and students last year in a deadly mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The mother of a recent graduate told CBS Miami last week that her daughter had taken her own life. Sydney Aiello, 19, was a senior at the school during the massacre. One of her friends, Meadow Pollack, was killed. In the year since the shooting, Aiello had struggled with survivor’s guilt and had recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, her mother said.
During the weekend, word began to spread that another Parkland teenager had also died in what authorities called an “apparent suicide.” The student’s name and age were not released, and authorities said the death was under investigation.
The circumstances surrounding the second student’s death are unclear, and mental health advocates cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
But in the South Florida community, student and parent activists quickly linked the two deaths – placing them in the context of the 17 other lives lost at Marjory Stoneman Douglas last year.
“17 + 2,” tweeted Ryan Petty, who is the father of Alaina Petty, a student killed in the shooting, and the founder of The Walkup Foundation, a school safety organization. Hillary Clinton tweeted Sunday that “nothing is worth the tremendous costs our young people bear because of our inaction on guns.” David Hogg, one of the student activists who rose to prominence in the wake of the Parkland shooting, called for officials to do more to prevent such deaths.
The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Parent Teacher Association tweeted a flier with the contact information of trauma counselors on Sunday, which was retweeted by an account for the school’s principal.
News of the second student’s death came on the first anniversary of March for Our Lives, the massive student-led demonstration against gun violence that was held in several U.S. cities last March. The protest was led by student activists from Parkland, including senior Aalayah Eastmond, who spoke at the Washington march.
“This day is so heavy,” Eastmond, 18, said Sunday afternoon while visiting a memorial garden called Grow Love outside the gates of her school. “It’s the anniversary of the march, and then this sad news. It’s all a lot.”
Eastmond travels the country, speaking to community groups about school violence. There aren’t enough resources for students across the country, she said, but there’s also a shortfall in her own school. Eastmond said she sees a school therapist who has helped her, but she said there’s only a handful available.
“This school of all places should have the resources. We’re known nationwide because of the shooting,” she said. “If we can’t get it right here, where can we get it right?”
Elected officials, school personnel and members of various county organizations met Sunday afternoon to discuss how to improve the availability of counseling services and raise awareness about mental health, Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky said in an interview.
The first priority would be “communicating to parents the need to talk to their children, and students to talk to each other,” about mental health and suicide prevention, she said.
“I think we need to talk about it, I think we need to be educated more about it,” she said. “Everybody deals with tragedy and trauma in their own trauma and their own way. Some people are doing better than others, and some are still struggling severely.”
Parents and students would be provided with copies of the Columbia Protocol, the mayor said, which friends, family and loved ones can use to determine if a person is at risk of suicide. The group also decided to move up the opening of Eagles’ Haven, a wellness and support center that would be available to members of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas community seven days a week.
A “resilience center” has also been set up by Broward County schools; it provides crisis and grief counseling, as well as support groups, for those who still grapple with trauma from the shooting.
But some at the school believed that the current resources provided to students were insufficient.
“The kids need help, and many of them that do need help are not getting any,” history teacher Greg Pittman, who taught Aiello, told the Miami Herald. “They want to talk to people that were there.”
He added that “many of them think that they don’t need help, that only their friends who were there understand. More resources probably would help, but also the resources that knew them (are) leaving.”
To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging 741741.
Mettler and Epstein reported from Washington.