RARITAN TWP., NJ – The Dec. 16 death of 15-year-old Allison Vandal cast a long shadow over the year’s last meeting of the Hunterdon Central High School board.
The meeting included school Superintendent Dr. Jeffrey Moore asking the public for a silent moment of reflection.
Moore has characterized Vandals’ death the result of suicide, even as a spokesperson for Hunterdon County Prosecutor Anthony P. Kearns, III has said the cause of death is undetermined and that the matter remains under investigation.
The “school community has been dealing with a terrifying and emotionally challenging situation,” Moore told the school board and public Dec. 18. “One of our students has committed suicide.
“We are going to continue, as we have, to share information with our community to help adults recognize signs in their children,” Moore said. “Our counselors here continue to be available to meet to meet with students, and they have met with hundreds already.”
But Michele Bernhard, a Hunterdon Central special education teacher, told school officials that wasn’t enough.
Bernhard noted that the results of students’ standardized tests are “reported in great detail throughout the year” to the board.
“Where are the reports about the number of students visiting counselors and the reason for their visit?” she asked. “Or the reports on the number of students suffering from depression, anxiety, drug abuse and mental illness?
“There’s a cost to having such a high focus on test scores and achievements,” Bernhard said.
In a voice that periodically cracked with emotion, Bernhard noted that many reports show anxiety and depression in teenagers are increasing.
“Ten years ago it was rare to have a student whom I knew had spent time in a facility for suicidal thoughts or actions, or was refusing to go to school because of anxiety,” Bernhard said. “But for the past three years I have had several a year. We have to do more ... we need to shift our focus.
“Ask any teacher,” Bernhard challenged school officials. “They’ll tell you that a student’s social and emotional needs have to be taken care of first” before academic learning can take place.
“This is what our priority should be, not how many students are sitting for AP exams” or passing standardized tests, she said.
Moore called the week, “The toughest week of my career.
“As we move forward we have some work to do in terms of understanding what’s become a disastrously elusive things for schools, and not just us,” the superintendent said. “We join a club of schools that has a terrible initiation. We need to talk about wellness among our students. It’s not just suicide prevention, although that needs special attention in the coming days and months.
“There is so much more to talk about with our students,” Moore said. “This is a constellation of things in which suicide is a very bright star. We are talking about substance abuse, anxiety and depression and all sorts of things that our students contend with, and hear about, and which are in some cases glorified for them.”
Moore added that, “I continue to be amazed at how staff and students here take care of each other.”
Bernhard said the response to Vandal’s death “has to go beyond bringing in more counselors when there’s a traumatic event. We need to investigate why our students are so anxious and depressed.”
Bernhard said she was “thankful that Dr. Moore was able to announce this as a suicide, because it prevents us from sweeping it under the rug. We need to face it.”
“There were many factors that led to her death,” Bernhard said, “not all of which the school was a part of. But the school did play a part in it. It can’t help but play a part because our students are here for so many of their waking hours. What happens here carries to home as much as home carries over to school,” she said.
“We need to make sure this never happens again.”
There are many suicide prevention and information resources that are available to all. NJ Hopeline offers confidential help every day of the year, around-the-clock, at 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE (654-6735). It also offers a web-based chat resource, and text messaging at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The national suicide hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
Mental health experts say no one should hesitate to seek help for themselves or anyone that they know. Information about risk factors and how to respond is widely available.