Suicide attempt after student deaths sparks concern -UPDATED
Editor’s Note: Updated to add more information.
For Danielle McComb, the tension and the panic have been palpable — and she is not alone.
Parents in the Park City School District have been forced to confront a pair of stark realities that aren’t often discussed in Park City: There are students here gripped by suicidal thoughts, and drug use in schools has the potential to kill.
“It’s been a week of fear and uncomfortable moments,” McComb said.
Those fears escalated because of a series of tragedies at Park City schools. Two 13-year-old Treasure Mountain Junior High School students, best friends, were found dead in their homes early this week. Then on Wednesday, police and school officials announced that a 15-year-old friend of those students was hospitalized after an apparent suicide attempt.
The 15-year-old, who attends Park City High School, was expected to recover, said Captain Phil Kirk of the Park City Police Department. Officers are still investigating the incident but believe the student may have overdosed on Tylenol.
According to Ember Conley, superintendent of the Park City School District, the teen was in the “inner circle” of friends of the two 13-year-old students, Grant Seaver and Ryan Ainsworth. The investigations of those deaths are also ongoing, and no causes had been determined, but Kirk said police were exploring whether the three students were involved in a suicide pact. Police Chief Wade Carpenter said Friday that no evidence of a suicide pact had been found.
The incidents caused officials to take strong action in an attempt to ensure the safety of other students. Conley, characterizing the situation as a crisis, described a phenomenon called suicide contagion, in which people at risk for self-harm show increased suicidal tendencies after they’ve been exposed to suicidal behavior. Suicide contagion, she said, can occur at schools following a string of student deaths. She urged parents to be on alert for signs of suicidal thoughts in their own children.
Additionally, the district activated its “crisis team” to identify at-risk students and assign counselors to meet with them. As well as its own counselors, the district has sought the help of Valley Behavioral Health and the Utah State Board of Education.
The tragedies put officials on edge about the possible presence of synthetic drugs in Park City schools. On Wednesday, they were still trying to determine if drugs played a role in the deaths of the 13-year-old boys. Police officers were awaiting toxicology results from the medical examiner’s office to determine why the boys died, but Conley said the teens were involved in social media discussions that mentioned experimental drugs.
The police, however, found no evidence of drug use at the boys’ homes. Conley said the district confiscated the school-issued computers of other students engaged in those discussions to find more information.
While it was still unclear whether the teen boys died from overdoses, officials on Wednesday reiterated their concerns about a specific drug, U-47700, commonly called pink, a synthetic opioid often crushed into powder form. According to police, the drug, which is marketed online specifically to teenagers, can be many times more deadly than the narcotic fentanyl.
The drug, officers believe, has made its way to Park City.
“I don’t think these young people realize they’re dealing with such a powerful drug,” Kirk said.
In response, officers conducted locker searches on the Kearns Boulevard campus. Conley said a white baggy containing methamphetamines was found Tuesday at Treasure Mountain Junior High during a targeted locker search.
On Wednesday, police used K9s to perform full sweeps of Park City High School, the Park City Learning Center — and both parking lots — as well as the junior high. It’s unknown whether the K9s can detect pink specifically, but Kirk said they recognize other opioids, so they may be able to sniff out the drug. Carpenter said Friday that K9 searches have long been common practice at Park City secondary schools.
Kirk added that police are trying to identify whether anyone is distributing pink in Park City. Carpenter said a parent alerted police about a package she found in her child’s room containing nasal inhalers full of clear liquid. Police are awaiting lab results to determine what the liquid is, but synthetic drugs like pink can be mixed into liquid form, then ingested with nasal inhalers.
Conley asked that parents continue sending their children to school. She said the best thing for students in times of crisis is to continue their regular routine to maintain a sense of normalcy. Despite the news of the tragedies, and the warnings about pink, attendance at Treasure Mountain Junior High was mostly normal throughout the week.
The school schedule continued, but the mood was somber and tense. Parents, worried about the safety of their children, feared that more bad news could come at any moment. For McComb, who has a daughter in eighth grade at Treasure Mountain, it’s been a startling experience, but one she’s tried to use as a “teaching moment.” She said she’s had open conversations with her children in recent days about the dangers of drugs.
Even so, the mere fact that drugs have become a major concern in Park City schools, she said, scares her and other parents.
“My daughter made a comment that, ‘I can’t believe this is happening here,’” she said. “I let her know that this can happen anywhere. My hope is that we start paying attention to what’s going on and don’t think that we are immune to it.”
Despite the fear, McComb praised school leaders for their handling of the situation. She said the initial alerts Tuesday morning induced a touch of panic among some parents, but she was pleased to see the district follow up quickly with additional information. And through it all teachers and staff at Treasure Mountain have been “incredible.”
“(Teachers) really went above and beyond,” she said. “We’ve had follow-up emails from certain teachers, just saying, ‘We’re trying to provide a safe environment.’ … We have some great parents and teachers who are really loving and nurturing the kids right now.”
In another measure to keep students safe, officials on Wednesday rolled out a smartphone app for Park City students to use to come forward with information about drugs or potentially suicidal students. The app, called SafeUT, allows students to send anonymous tips to school principals, and also lets at-risk students speak with crisis therapists.
Conley said the app could be critical because officials rely heavily on information from students to keep schools safe. She added that their willingness to be forthcoming in recent days has been encouraging.
For McComb, the situation has been jarring. She said she hopes to see the community band together to keep students safe. But the dangers are real and won’t be overcome easily.
“I think the synthetic drug crisis is something that is very recent,” she said. “A lot of us don’t know about it because it’s new. I knew that there was a good amount of drug use in Park City, but not these other drugs. These are scary because you just don’t know what’s in it and it’s readily available.”