PARKLAND, Fla. — The grief that still envelops Parkland after last year’s school massacre is now compounded by the recent suicides of current or former students.
Community leaders are urging parents everywhere to be vigilant and proactive in talking to their kids about trauma.
Sydney Aiello, a 2018 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, died by suicide last week. She survived the attack on Valentine’s Day 2018 that killed 17 people at the Florida school — including 14 students and three staff members.
Aiello, a Florida Atlantic University student, suffered from survivor’s guilt and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, her mom told CNN affiliate WFOR.
Then on Saturday, more tragedy struck Parkland when a second student died in what police describe as “an apparent suicide.”
The student, who has not been publicly identified, was a student at Stoneman Douglas High. It’s not clear under what circumstances the student died, or whether the apparent suicide was related to last year’s massacre.
Parents: ‘We have to take this seriously’
“Unfortunately, what we’ve learned is that the survivors of a traumatic event like a school shooting carry with them a lot of guilt, anxiety, pressures, depression even,” said Ryan Petty, whose daughter Alaina Petty was killed in last year’s shooting.
Petty, who has another child who survived the attack, established the WalkUp Foundation after the shooting with a focus on preventing suicide.
“We just have to assume as a parent that your child is not immune for that. Your child is at risk, and you need to take that seriously,” he said.
Petty said the school district, community leaders, law enforcement and concerned parents met Sunday to discuss how to address the trauma survivors are facing.
“Even if everything appears to be OK, you need to take that seriously,” he said. “You need to ask them the questions. Have you thought about killing yourself? Have you thought about ways you might do that?”
Petty said students had been offered resources after the shooting, including counseling options. But he said sometimes there are stigmas associated with getting help, or that students just pretended that they were OK.
“So unfortunately some students are not availing themselves of those opportunities, and some parents are not understanding that the risks of anxiety and depression in a post-traumatic environment like a school shooting,” Petty said.
“So our message is parents we have to take this seriously. We have to take this into our own hands. … Regardless of your proximity to the building and whether or not you saw the horrific events of that day that took 17 lives and injured 17 others, you’re part of a school community and that community is suffering.”
The power of peer-to-peer communication
Cindy Arenberg Seltzer, the president of Children’s Services Council of Broward County, also attended Sunday’s meeting.
“One of the things that I have heard parents and children say is that nobody cares, and they just want us to get on with our lives. And I really want them to know that that’s not true,” she said.
“I just left a room full of 60 people who came on a moment’s notice on a Sunday afternoon to show how much they care.”
She said that peer-to-peer communication could be a powerful tool, as teenagers might not turn to their parents as a first resource.
“We want to harness the power of the young people to speak to each other,” she said. That may include using Instagram, Snapchat or any other method that could “yield huge benefits.”
MSD students use their experience to help others
In an example of such networking, MSD students have themselves been reaching out beyond their own community to help other people experiencing trauma.
Survivors began a letter-writing campaign last week to help heal families and communities affected by the March 15 shootings at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The Parkland students grew connected to the Christchurch community when they visited New Zealand last July on a learning and healing trip.
“We got letters after our tragedy. That was something that really surprised us,” said Kai Koerber, a Stoneman Douglas senior who went on last year’s trip.
“It’s something that really warmed the hearts of people in my community. I think it will warm the hearts of people in Christchurch as well.”
If you or someone you know might be at risk of suicide, here’s how to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.