The Fairfax County school community was left reeling again after two student suicides the last week of February, following two student suicides earlier that month.
In the wake of the tragedies, the school system and community have banded together to refocus and ramp up their suicide prevention efforts.
“Just two months ago, long-term solutions were the name of the game,” said parent activist Bob Phillips. “But now we need a new action plan.”
Bob Phillips co-founded Community of Solutions with fellow Woodson High School parent Carol Davis last May, in response to the third student suicide in the Woodson student population that school year.
Since then, the community group has focused mainly on building everyday mental health in teens rather than targeting those in crisis. Community of Solutions purposefully does not home in on suicide, according to Davis, instead preferring a broader view of the multifaceted mental health landscape.
Still, Davis and Phillips recognized the need not only for support but also for a safety net to catch those who stumble. The group planned to start assembling a mental health resource package for teens struggling with mental health issues at the meeting scheduled for March 11.
Then two weeks ago, the Woodson community was shaken again, as two students committed suicide within two days of each other, on Feb. 26 and Feb. 28. These deaths followed two suicides of Langley High School students in the first week of February.
(Note: Although the identities of the teens are known, Fairfax County Times does not generally reveal the identities of suicide victims.)
Suddenly, this week’s Community of Solutions meeting took on a new urgency. Close to 60 people — triple the group’s typical attendance — came to Mantua Swim and Tennis Club in Fairfax to lend their support. The crowd included a mix of parents, mental health professionals and school staff, including Mary Ann Panarelli, the school system’s director of student services.
One of the main focuses of the meeting remained creating the mental health resource package. The first piece of the resource package centers on CrisisLink, a Virginia-based mental health crisis hotline.
Panarelli noted that earlier on Tuesday the school system placed an information box on the website of every middle and high school that included the telephone numbers for CrisisLink, the FCPS hotline and other emergency mental health services.
One of the goals of Community of Solutions is to facilitate connections and dialogue between community members and school and county officials, according to Davis.
“Community of Solutions, the schools, the county, parents, none of us can do this alone,” Davis said. “We need to work together.”
The Community of Solutions meeting followed a larger meeting held at Woodson High School that drew more than 1,200 people. Phillips joined county schools Superintendent Karen Garza, Woodson Principal Jeff Yost and others in expressing their support to the Woodson community and talking about available resources.
Debra Hunter, a Woodson parent who attended both meetings, said of the school meeting, “It was a good start, but it was too large for real discussion. The smaller group allows for conversations to get going and actions to take off.”
School Board member Megan McLaughlin (Braddock), who has two sons at Woodson, attended both meetings as well.
“My oldest son, who is a senior, has lived through six of these in his time at Woodson, and many were his football teammates,” McLaughlin told the group. “We need to have improved communication with our teens about suicide, and that starts here in the community.”
The next Community of Solutions meeting is scheduled for 7:15 p.m. April 23 at Truro Swim Club in Fairfax.