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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

A sentence I would like to never write again.

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

A Shorewood High School student has died by his own hand.

His name was William Pemberton. His mother has asked for help paying for memorial expenses and to set up a nonprofit in his name that she hopes to use in his honor. (As I wrote this, the campaign passed its initial goal, but expenses like that add up -- I imagine his family can use all the help we can offer) In the campaign description, his mother Shayla Pemberton said he had been struggling with his mental health for years. His struggle is over. His family's grief is impossible to fathom.

Our community's struggle to understand, and to prevent the next loss, is just beginning.

A Shorewood High School student has died by suicide. I would like to never have to write that about another student.

Now as a community, let's make sure we do everything in our power to prevent the next student wrestling with depression or anxiety from ending his or her life.

I expect that at this week's school board meeting, the district's mental health workgroup will speak with heavy hearts and will hear more questions than they perhaps would have if we were not all thinking of this young man's death, and the struggles leading up to it. The summary of the workgroup's progress says the group has been working to establish a tiered system of support across the district -- Tier 1 being basic social-emotional learning (SEL), Tier 2 additional support, Tier 3 even more intensive support.

Unfortunately it appears the district workgroup, which includes members of the school board along with staff and administrators, has met and discussed quite a bit of what

they want, but taken few concrete steps toward actually selecting a vendor or service provider for direct services for students who need more than the basic SEL instruction.

It's hard not to feel impatient with the district leadership over this, since the need has been apparent not only since the district's summit in 2016 when the community identified a need for focus on the on wellness, but even before that, when the last student suicide in 2013, which sparked important conversations across the community and involvement in REDgen, which has thankfully continued thanks to committed students, staff, teachers and volunteers.

According to its strategic plan, the district's focus for the 2016-2017 was supposed to be mental health, but beyond supporting REDgen's work, the district hasn't accomplished much by way of adding services or even creating a concrete plan of action for adding those services.

The district briefly explored options for on-site counseling at Shorewood High School. The most recent update from Director of Pupil Services Jeff Cyganiak came June 27, 2017. Mr. Cyganiak told the board that conservative Christian counseling services organization Rawhide, a Christian organization that runs a religious camp for "troubled youth" was the only agency that could realistically offer the district on-site services -- through its counseling arm, which is separate from its camp. (Video of the meeting is here. His rather lengthy presentation takes up the bulk of the meeting, from about the 5 minute mark to to 1hr 20-minute mark). Not surprisingly, the board had some tough questions about the idea of on-site counseling services at a public school from an openly faith-based organization like Rawhide. Those were met with pushback from the Superintendent about whether the board should concern itself with choice of vendor, since that's apparently outside its scope under its governance model. Nevertheless, the idea appears dead -- I haven't heard it discussed since.

I have written about this before, but I find the district's mental health work over the last few years painfully inadequate. I think I am probably not alone in thinking that in the wake of William Pemberton's death, but it was true before last week. Mental health was a stated focus for the last school year, but very little visible progress has been made in broadening services from the district itself. I don't think we have the staff we need, and I don't think that focusing on counseling services at the high school is enough -- even as a starting point. Mental health crises will often reach a boiling point in older teens, and there are certainly unique stresses and risks for high-school age kids, but we need to start in Kindergarten and especially focus on kids who are middle school age, when struggles will often first reveal themselves.

We can't bring William Pemberton back for his mother and family and friends. We can do better for the next student who sees no way out but death. There is always another way if only we have someone to show us.

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Jan 26, 2018

PS. I know that I spoke mainly of school drama and yet there is so much that can go on in a person's home and personal life. I have been in counseling for 30+ years off and on. The one thing that made the most impact on me was listening to speakers who had been where I had been, and they gave me hope. I saw you wrote that we could incorporate the family and have counseling with the parents, but if there is drug and alcohol addiction in that family, counseling is like showing up to a gun fight with a knife. It's a great tool but it might not help you in this case. Family dynamics changing takes…


Jan 26, 2018

This is such a great post! I agree with all it! What I would like to see is this starting in grade school when kids are still looking to adults as their role models. I would like to see it continue through middle and high school.

I have dealt with these feelings myself, both as a teen and as an adult, especially when you think there are no other options! None!! What I would like to see is a monthly or even WEEKLY series of speakers that come into high schools and talk about this stuff. A person who comes to speak from the heart (someone who wont use notes, someone who can engage the students) and talk about how…

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