In 2010, Santa Clara County had the fifth-highest rate of adolescent self-inflicted injuries in the state. Suicide is the third leading cause of death here for youth ages 15-19. And from 1991-2010, there were 3,317 attempted suicides in the county, leading to numerous hospitalizations and 114 suicidal deaths for our 10-19 year olds.
A 15-year old high school student’s death became an international story last week. Social media, sexual violence and alcohol are at the center of the storm once again.
Audrie Pott, a Saratoga High School sophomore, was at an unsupervised party on Labor Day weekend 2012, when she allegedly became unconscious after drinking Gatorade and vodka. The local media have reported that while unconscious or asleep, Audrie was sexually molested by three Saratoga High School boys. Pictures posted on social media of the assault were disseminated at school shortly after the party leading to her suicide, according to Robert Allard, attorney for Audrie’s family. She took her own life in September of last year.
After a seven-month investigation, three boys were arrested Thursday. The boys’ attorneys said in a statement that the suicide had nothing to do with their clients. On Monday, Audrie’s parents held a news conference at a San Jose Hotel to speak publicly about their daughter’s unnecessarily abbreviated life for the first time.
There are a myriad of lessons we can learn in this tragedy, along with steps schools, districts and families can consider to prevent these incidents from occurring in the future. Below I have set out some steps that can be taken:
1. Unsupervised parties where there is underage drinking or drug use must be an open topic of discussion on all high school campuses. Parents and students must know the laws and facts as they relate to underage drinking, and the possible consequences. Parent and student forums must be held regularly to discuss the serious nature of the issue. Lawyers, educators, law enforcement professionals, students and parents must set the agenda and message for each forum.
2. Ninth-grade students must be taught the consequences of drinking and the effect it has on particular body weights—on a full and empty stomach—to become unconscious or near unconscious. These kids should be taught that mixing certain alcohol with mixers like Red Bull can accelerate the effect. In my experience, students lack the basic information on these physiological factors. These lessons must be interwoven throughout science and physical education classes in systemic ways throughout all four years of high school.
3. Built into the curriculum must be annual presentations and discussions on the ethical use of social media. All students and parents must know when social media is being used in unethical and illegal ways. Too often the lack of information makes it easier to do the wrong thing, even if the social media user understands that it crosses a moral line. There must be student discussions about this, along with role-playing and other avenues to sunshine the pervasive existence of immoral, illegal, and unethical behavior on FaceBook, Twitter, Instagram, or even the new Snapchat app.
4. Legal consequences for the abuse, unethical and immoral uses of social media must be strengthened. It has been reported that Audrie Pott’s parents are working with U.S. Congressmember Zoe Lofgren and State Senator Jim Beall to address the possibilities of new laws—perhaps named after Audrie—to increase the legal consequences. Education of youth and parents must be at the core. Zero Tolerance and suspensions are not best practice, and they do not lead to a decrease in the aberrant behavior.
5. Schools must conduct quarterly or semi-annual data collections of new norms for behavior and the overall environment. These must go all the way up to the school board for sunshining and discussions. I have heard too many administrators in my career state that these problems do not exist in their district or school. I say WTF to that. They exist in every school and district.
6. The data should lead to specific staff trainings and development courses.
7. Use video, literature, artistic expression and social media campaigns by students to allow for discussions on healthy practices.
8. Make certain that student voices are at the center of strategic discussions. California can no longer be 50th out of 50 states in the school counselor to student ratio. Children, from cradle to career, need someone to talk to and confide in about their life struggles. Audrie Pott’s suicide should become the rallying point for getting us to the nation’s average on the counselor to student ratio.
9. Most times they won’t go to their parents, although parents can be taught how to have substantive conversations about these issues.
One cannot be certain that these nine action plans will prevent physical and online bullying, underage drinking, unsupervised parties, etc. But they might help the kind of tragic events that led to Audrie’s death. I am convinced that if a comprehensive plan is in place at our high schools in the near future, we can avert future episodes like the tragedy that shook up a family, a high school, a city, a state and a nation.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.