Tuesday, April 22, 2014

After six Woodson High suicides, a search for solace and answers

By Justin Jouvenal & T. Rees Shapiro

A memorial wreath and flowers are seen where
Jack Chen ended his life.
 (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)
Washington Post~ The final evening of Jack Chen’s life was indistinguishable from many others. The sophomore returned home from school, ate dinner with his mother and retired to his room. His mother asked him to turn out his light at midnight.

Inside his bedroom, anguish gnawed at him, a darkness invisible to friends and family: He maintained a 4.3 grade-point average at one of the area’s top high schools, was a captain of the junior varsity football team and had never tried drugs or alcohol.

But that hidden pain drove Jack from his Fairfax Station home early the next morning — Wednesday, Feb. 26. The 15-year-old, who pestered his father to quit smoking and wear his safety belt, walked to nearby tracks and stepped between the rails as a commuter train approached.

His death is one of six apparent suicides at Fairfax’s W.T.Woodson High School during the past three years, including another student found dead the next day. The toll has left the school community reeling and prompted an urgent question: Why would so many teens from a single suburban school take their lives?

County officials say they do not believe the deaths are directly connected, and experts say that suicides among teens occurring in such a short span are extremely rare.

Students have cried openly in Woodson’s hallways while teachers have tried to show resilience. Frustrated parents have asked the Woodson leadership and school system administrators for answers while wondering whether the school’s high-pressure, high-achieving culture could be playing a role.

“A loss like this cuts a deep wound. It persists. It lingers. It’s very slow to heal,” said Steve Stuban, whose son attended Woodson and committed suicide in 2011. “I have no idea what causes this to occur with increased incidence. All I know is it seems it’s occurring more at Woodson than any other place in the county.”

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