Shawnee Mission Northwest community grieves after two students commit suicide
A community is in mourning this week after two students committed suicide within days of each other.
Shawnee Mission Northwest High School principal Lisa Gruman sent out two emails, one on Tuesday afternoon and one on Wednesday morning, informing parents of the deaths.
In the first email, she confirmed SM Northwest freshman Steven Cohenour died on Monday; in the other, she confirmed another student died Wednesday morning. The district confirmed the two deaths aren't related, and has not released any information about the second student.
“Many of us have been deeply affected by this terrible news,” Gruman stated in the first email.
She added that over the next few days and weeks, the district will have additional counselors and social workers available to help students and staff deal with the loss.
In that same email, she also released a statement from Cohenour’s family.
“There are no words to express the depths of our loss and we realize that there are many in the SMNW community that were also touched by the light that we knew as Steven,” it said. “Thank you for all of your thoughts and expressions of support. We hope that all can celebrate his life, remembering his friendship and laughter. We can only move through this time of grief one step at a time, depending on each other as one big family.”
After confirming the second student’s death, Gruman said additional counselors and social workers were brought in to help, and the school was working with community resources to provide additional support.
“This time of the year is generally a stressful time for students,” Gruman stated. “The holidays are over, and the real work of the semester is getting underway. The winter is stretching out before them, and none of us are prepared to face the loss of a life so young.
"Everyone handles stress and grief in a different way. Some may have difficulty concentrating and experience feelings of anger and denial. Some may withdraw, while others need to talk. We want you to be aware of what's going on at school so you can be extra attentive to how your child is handling this news. If you see behavior changes, or you have any concerns, always feel free to contact us.”
She also included suicide awareness resource phone numbers and websites in the email.
Shawnee Mission Northwest students and parents were heartbroken and shocked by the news.
Shawnee mom Carrie Malik brought her freshman son home from school on Wednesday afternoon because he was so distraught by the news.
“I know a lot of us want to wrap our arms around those families,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. I can’t even fathom what they’re going through.”
She told the Dispatch it is terrifying to be a parent because teen suicide has become an epidemic.
“When you have children dealing with mental illness, it’s easy to feel helpless,” Malik said. “There is a lot of helpful (prevention) information out there, but many parents may not know where to go or where to even begin.”
She hopes one day the Shawnee Mission School District, along with other districts, will provide better mental health dialogue, more suicide prevention resources and clearer transparency on a subject which is still considered “taboo” by many people.
“The conversation isn’t out there, but it’s going to start now,” Malik said. “We need to be comfortable talking about suicide and we can’t keep thinking about it like a stigma, like it’s the elephant in the room.”
Lenexa mom Holly Twaddell agrees every parent needs to be aware of the warning signs and suicide prevention.
In an era of social media, where bullying and social drama become ever-consuming, she wishes more young people realized they can always turn to a parent, teacher, coach or other trusted adult with their problems or feelings.
“Kids live off their emotions, they live in the moment and they can’t grasp that if something bad happens, it will go away tomorrow or the next day,” she said. “They think what they feel right now is the end of the world.”
Shawnee mom Nichole Herring echoed that sentiment.
“I worry constantly about bullying and social media and everything else, but really as parents, all we can do is be alert and look for warning signs and let our kids know we’re here for them to talk to,” she told the Dispatch.
The past couple days have been difficult for her family, as her freshman daughter knew both the victims.
As a way to show encouragement and support in the midst of heartbreak, Herring and a large group of parents will be rallying at Shawnee Mission Northwest on Thursday morning, with positive signs, as students arrive for school.
On Wednesday evening, the Shawnee Mission School District sent district-wide families an email informing them of the two deaths.
It states, “Now is the time for every one of us to be extra sensitive and vigilant to take care of our children. While these tragedies happened off school grounds and are unrelated, they affect all of us who care about our school family. We are proud of the way our staff and students have come together to support each other during this difficult time.”
The statement said if a parent, teacher or staff member observes a student who may consider self-harm, they should “ACT” on it. ACT stands for “acknowledge, care and tell.”
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or you can text to 741741.
- Suicide is never the answer – getting help is the answer. Prevention, awareness, and support is also available at Suicide.org.
-Mike Frizzell of Operation 100 News contributed to this report.