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When Tragedy Hits Home

That first terrible moment remains etched in Kristi Strickland’s memory. It’s 10:38 on a February morning. Strickland, a high-school principal, is in her office when she takes the call from a police officer: A student has hanged himself at his home.

Strickland’s Lake Dallas High School had never experienced a student suicide. Neither had the school district, which draws students from four tiny towns tucked alongside a scenic lake north of the sprawling Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. School officials thought they were doing everything right. Everyone spoke about the strong sense of community that rippled outward from the Lake Dallas schools. Teachers greeted students at the doorways to their classrooms, and administrators made it a point to walk the halls to meet and chat with kids.

“It just wasn’t enough,” says Jim Parker, principal of Lake Dallas Middle School. “We didn’t know what was going on in their lives, how they were feeling. We needed to dig a little deeper. We had to be better.”

The boy who died was a popular 17-year-old 11th-grader. Jordan Griffith was handsome and slender, with dark brown eyes and devilish dimples. He played sports and had a solid circle of friends. In a school portrait, posing in his football uniform, his wide grin seems just about to give way to a big laugh.

How could a tragedy like this happen? Although teen suicide isn’t uncommon in the United States, news of this death would be devastating in this small community, home to SUCCESS magazine and its parent company.

Strickland had so many questions, but her immediate focus had to be on the well-being of her teachers and students. She called her administrators and campus leaders together to draft a message for the school. “We wanted the message to come from us,” she says, and not through the rumor mill via cellphones and text messages. Before making a general announcement, Strickland took a copy to the boy’s classroom, spoke quietly to the teacher, then read the message to the class. “That was a tough moment, because I knew some of the kids were his friends, and it was the first time they’d ever had to go through something like that,” she says. “They didn’t understand it, the passing of a friend. And it was a blow.”

The teachers took the news hard. “I had some who just buckled, and I had to look them in the face and say, ‘I know, but right now you have to go back in there,’ ” Strickland says. “They have huge hearts. And when I think about it, it puts a lump in my throat. They were there for the kids. They knew instinctively when to hold their hands and when to mourn, and when to get back into the ebb and flow of teaching.”

For the students, though, the loss was almost impossible to comprehend. “It was just awful. It was just the worst day,” says Craig Holliday, now a 12th-grader at Lake Dallas High School. Jordan, he says, was “very well-known—the class clown.”

Eleventh-grader Patrick Patlan also remembers that terrible day: “People were hugging, people were crying. A lot of people just went home. They couldn’t handle it. It was the last thing you’d ever expect to happen. Why would someone take his own life? His life was just beginning.”

Within an hour, counselors from neighboring school districts began arriving, ready to do whatever they could. Experts specializing in mental health and suicide prevention helped Lake Dallas officials host a question-and-answer session that drew about 600 parents and students.

“The districts around us were wonderful. Everyone was reaching out to us,” says Parker, the middle-school principal. “Then, we got the phone call shortly after 10 on a Sunday night at the end of our spring break that we lost a student at the middle school.”

Only about a month after the first suicide, there was another hanging, another boy dead. This one was 14 and described by classmate Amadi Taylor as “very outgoing, very smart, a rebel.” When his death was announced, she remembers how quiet the school became. “Everyone was crying—the students and the teachers.”

There apparently was no connection between the two deaths. The 14-year-old’s death ultimately would be ruled accidental, the result of a “choking game,” according to the medical examiner. But that finding did little to numb the pain in the community.

“The first death, of course, was a complete shock,” says Gayle Stinson, superintendent of the Lake Dallas school district. “And the second… I really don’t have the words to explain the feeling. I’m not sure there’s a statistical measure that could ever come close to the hurt at every level—students, parents, teachers, administrators, the whole community. There’s just no measure to the anguish we felt. You never expect to be a part of something like this. It’s the most devastating thing I’ve ever dealt with in my career.”

Deborah Franklin, the assistant principal for eighth grade at Lake Dallas Middle School, spends much of her day dealing with kids in trouble, and the causes that lead to those problems—family issues, problems at school, personal struggles. “And the bulk of the kids I see are what I call ‘my regular customers,’ ” she says. One of those kids was the 14-year-old who died.

“He was a good kid. Every time I saw him, and no matter what consequence I gave him, it was always, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ I told his mother he was the hardest person for me to discipline because he was always so respectful,” Franklin says.

A few days later, a friend of the 14-year-old who died tried to commit suicide at school. “I was in the hallway the day that happened. I had just talked with that student. I didn’t realize he was having a bad day,” Franklin says. “When that happened, trying to put on a tough face at school was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I would go home and cry, and then I would come back the next day and I had to put on a strong face for kids, for our teachers.”

Parker describes the 14-year-old who died as “a very well-liked young man with a bubbly personality. You wouldn’t think anything could be wrong, and I guess that was one more thing that told us you don’t know everything going on in a kiddo’s life. And then we had the kiddo here who attempted suicide in the restroom. Thank the Lord that he’s OK and we had teachers who saved his life.

“But again, that’s one more symptom of how much the kids were hurting and how much it was on their minds, and how much we, as a community, had to address what was going on with our kids,” the principal says.

“The book allowed us to reach out to the schools. It galvanized us. Our involvement, as well as the efforts of everyone else in the community, just helped illustrate the message of the first chapter in 'SUCCESS for Teens: ‘Little Things Matter.’ ”

People throughout the community were hurting, too, and they reached out to help. Among the many calls and emails to school officials was one from Lake Dallas-based SUCCESS Partners, which owns SUCCESS magazine. School officials hadn’t had time to respond to their first email before receiving another one saying, “We’re serious—what can we do to help? We have resources. We have a foundation that would be good for your kids. Let us help,” Stinson recalls.

“In light of the tragedy, we wanted to help bring this community together to find a way to work through it and learn what we needed to learn,” says Kate Gardner of the SUCCESS Foundation.

The SUCCESS Foundation had developed a book and CD titled SUCCESS for Teens, distributed for free to young people through teachers and youth leaders. The book is a primer of sorts on goal-setting and the importance of dreaming big, making good decisions, understanding that actions have consequences and that small, positive steps can contribute to a lifetime of success. Stuart Johnson, owner of SUCCESS Partners, created the foundation when he purchased the magazine in 2007. Johnson credits personal-development material for steering him in the right direction when he was a teen, and he wanted to help provide the same empowering content to other young people.

So far, the foundation has distributed almost 2 million copies of SUCCESS for Teens and signed on youth ambassador Rock T, a radio DJ with the nationally syndicated “Ricky Smiley Morning Show.” Rock T (Rocky Turner) promotes the content to students and gives it his own spin: SWAG (Success With A Goal.)

For Stinson and other district administrators, the offer of assistance from a company right up the street brought enormous relief. In an email after their initial meeting, Stinson wrote: “For the first time in a long while, I don’t feel like I’m alone in trying to carry 4,100 students and 650 employees on my shoulders. You all have given us hope during one of the most trying times in Lake Dallas ISD as well as in public education.”

While acknowledging there’s no cure-all for the complicated issues facing teens today, Gardner says, “the book allowed us to reach out to the schools. It galvanized us. Our involvement, as well as the efforts of everyone else in the community, just helped illustrate the message of the first chapter in 'SUCCESS for Teens: ‘Little Things Matter.’ ”

And foundation officials knew from feedback from teachers who had used the book that the character-development and life skills could help Lake Dallas students take control of their own circumstances and ultimately their own success. “Your circumstances are not you,” says the foundation’s Leah McCann, quoting from the book and speaking from her own experience of losing a friend to suicide when they were just 13. “Whatever my friend’s circumstances were in those moments, they were not so grave that her only option was to take her own life."

“If I’d read the book when I was younger, it would’ve opened my mind to thinking larger, thinking beyond today,” McCann says. “That’s what the book’s about: knowing how to take the small steps every day to accomplish a greater goal.”

Beyond helping students in their own lives, the book could be a tool they could use in helping other kids make the right decisions. After all, Gardner says, “Kids think we adults don’t get it; we don’t understand. And often we don’t. So positive change has to start with the kids.”

In fact, teachers and students say it’s the stories about kids from kids that make the book’s lessons relevant and compelling. “The kids’ stories are sad and eye-opening,” says 11th-grader Patlan. “It makes you really want to know the ‘before’ and ‘after.’ ”

“Small-town feel” is how people describe this place, even with about 4,100 students spread across the four communities in the district. “It’s our little paradise,” Jim Parker says. And against the relentless rush of Dallas and its rings of suburbs, the drone of traffic along Interstate 35 and even the summer crowds on the lake, the pace of life in these small towns is a little slower, the faces friendlier. On one sunny Saturday, a couple of kids, maybe middle-school age, followed a sandy path along the railroad tracks much as kids have done for 150 years.

Driving through these communities, a turn down any small road carries you to a different decade. A development of crisp, new suburban homes—all red brick and high fences and very 21st century—sits across the road from an ancient barn and a couple of houses hugging a dusty driveway. A few miles away, narrow roads snake through older neighborhoods where cars sit permanently parked and stubborn dogs greet visitors with loud, threatening barks. Another turn and the vista opens up—a stately new ranch house surveys rolling pastureland grazed by reddish-brown Hereford cattle.

Stinson, the school superintendent, is a Lake Dallas native who went off to college and grad school and came back. She knows of many multigenerational families who were educated in Lake Dallas schools, and her feelings for the people here go much deeper than what you’d expect from a school administrator.

Strickland, the high-school principal, lives up the road in Denton. But she was drawn to the Lake Dallas schools because of what she saw at sporting events over the years. “I came from a school that was a part of the community,” she says. “But when we played Lake Dallas, I could see the school and the community was one, and I liked that.”

But tragedies come even to close-knit communities.

Almost all of the teens who commit suicide—roughly 90 percent—suffer from some sort of psychiatric illness, unfortunately often undiagnosed until the worst happens, says Betsy Kennard, a professor and clinical psychologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. Kennard works with children and adolescents dealing with depression and suicidal behavior.

“In kids who do have psychiatric problems, particularly depression, we find a high level of [suicide] attempts—30 to 50 percent,” she says. “But even in a normal population, kids without any kind of illness, about 20 percent of teenagers have suicidal thoughts and 9 percent have made suicide attempts.”

Most understand the finality of death, especially if they’re older than 9 or so, Kennard says. “But kids are impulsive.”

They’re also dealing with raging hormones and mood swings. Their life experiences are so limited that it’s sometimes hard for them to see beyond today’s circumstances to realize things will get better. And “kids face a very different world than the one in which we grew up,” Stinson points out.

“A lot of the values taught years ago aren’t being taught now. And the traditional family now isn’t the traditional family of 15 years ago,” says Cory Hailey, an assistant principal at Lake Dallas High. And 15 years ago, there was no social media, which can be a wonderful thing or a tool that tears apart their self-esteem.

Even for people close to troubled teens, the warning signs can be tough to read. Bill Griffith says he always thought his son, Jordan, was a typical teen. He’d argue with his parents sometimes. His grades fluctuated. He balked at doing household chores. “He had problems with some of the teachers at school, like a lot of kids. I attributed it all to Jordan being a teen,” his dad says. “But he wasn’t bullied. He had an outgoing personality and a lot of friends. Jordan was the spirit-picker-upper after a tough football game. He’d come around and make everybody laugh.”

But he wasn’t always like that. After his parents split up, Jordan lived with his mom for a while. One day, Bill Griffith got a call from his ex-wife’s neighbor about trouble in her home. Jordan, who was only 10 or 11, had left his mother and was staying with the neighbor. “I really don’t know all he saw or experienced. I really don’t know,” his dad says. “Jordan always was very strong.”

There were no police reports related to this incident, but sheriff’s officials confirmed that the man Bill Griffith identified as his ex-wife’s live-in boyfriend has a criminal history involving domestic violence and illegal drugs.

After gaining legal custody of Jordan, Bill Griffith took him for therapy. “But Jordan always seemed happy. He was always out with his friends, doing things.”

A few days before Jordan’s death, he and his girlfriend broke up, his dad says, “but he’d broken up with her before, and with other girls. We never thought it would be an issue,” Griffith says.

Jordan was never one to keep his room clean or to help with the kitchen, his father says. But over the two days before his death, “he cleaned his room, he cleaned the kitchen. He did all his laundry, folded it and put it away. And then he went to get a haircut. They say when someone has decided to commit suicide they have a sense of peace. To my thinking, he’d already made the decision.”

In the months since his son took his life, Bill Griffith has learned a lot more about the warning signs. “I guess he was clinically depressed, but we didn’t know,” he says. “There was never any of that ‘he didn’t want to be here anymore.’ His friends were shocked, especially his two best friends. It’s something we’ll never know the answer to. I just hope his death will help other kids decide against doing the same thing.”

Months after the two deaths and the suicide attempt, life in the Lake Dallas schools has resumed the daily routine. Time and help from inside and outside the schools have aided the healing.

At the high school, students took to wearing orange, a school color for Oklahoma State University, where Jordan Griffith hoped to go. “On his birthday in October,” Craig Holliday says, “there were orange shirts, orange shoelaces, orange everything to remember him.”

While no one forgot Jordan, other things—like the football team making it into the state playoffs—provided welcome distractions.

Amid all the green and white posters rooting for the team that lined a hallway in late November were other placards with key points from SUCCESS for Teens—“Little Things Matter,” “Your Circumstances Aren’t You,” “Make the Right Choice at the Right Moment,” “What You Think Matters Too!”

“We’re trying to flood the system with positive ideas from the book, different themes so kids can change their mode of thinking,” says Hailey, the assistant principal at the high school. The book is one of many tools that help build relationships with students. Others he uses include “high-fiving, chest bumps, screaming and going crazy at the game or pep rally, whatever it takes to reach them.”

Stinson says the foundation’s material resources affirmed what school officials were trying to give students—hang in there; you can do this; nothing is too hard to get through. “But SUCCESS for Teens gave us a different way, a book, to articulate that to students, and that was huge.”

Hailey says he hopes the book’s lessons become intuitive for youngsters. “I’m hoping we get to the point when a student is sitting there by himself, and I’m not there, his support group isn’t there, and he needs to make a decision. ‘Am I going to take the right road or am I going to take the wrong road?’ And I hope he’s learned enough from Success for Teens to help him decide, ‘This is what I need to do.’ ”

Bill Griffith sees reason for hope. “The school has learned some things. They’ve implemented some procedures. Parents have begun to speak to their children and to listen. Jordan’s death has really helped other people. And I know talking about this has helped our family to heal.”

Little Things Matter

How You Can Help

For advice how to keep open lines of communication with your teenager, read our article with input from social psychologist, Dr. Susan Newman.

 

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