This story is about youth suicide. If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Local resources from Mental Health Association Oklahoma can be found here.
Melissa Silagyi was finally ready to look through her son’s phone. It had been almost one month since Nate Silagyi died by suicide, and even though police had returned his phone weeks ago, the Edmond mother hadn’t been able to bring herself to explore its text messages and emails.
But she was still searching for answers and hoped Nate’s phone might provide some.
Nate was a 15-year-old freshman at Edmond North High School, a real “people-person,” his mother said, often laughing and telling jokes. He had just gone through a growth spurt and was at times a “moody teenager” who balked at doing the dishes or cleaning his room. But Nate kept up with his school work and enjoyed traveling with his family, especially snorkeling and a trip to New Zealand with his dad.
Youth suicide rates have increased nationally over the past several years but the growth has been even greater in Oklahoma. From 2007 to 2017, youth suicide in Oklahoma increased 103 percent, compared to 42 percent nationally, according to the state’s latest youth and young adult suicide report.
Nate is one of at least seven Edmond students who have died by suicide over the past 15 months, according to research by The Frontier that involved following up on student death notices, reaching out to families and talking with school counselors.
While a variety of factors contribute to Oklahoma’s rising youth suicide rates, several mental health officials told The Frontier one of the state’s greatest challenges is the lack of any requirement that educators and students receive suicide prevention training or that schools adopt a detailed mental health crisis plan.
Weeks after Nate’s death, when Melissa finally started to explore his phone, she found an essay he had written three months before he died. Titled “Running out of Reasons,” the essay was for an AP English class with the assignment to write about a challenging experience. The five-page paper offered a window into Nate’s mind – he was struggling with some friendships, sometimes felt alone, and appeared to be hearing voices.
On the fourth page, Nate revealed he had considered suicide and even acknowledged writing that in a class paper would get attention from the school administration: “I’m probably going to have to talk with the principal for this but I developed some suicidal thoughts. Really, just thoughts?”
Melissa wondered why Nate’s essay hadn’t sparked a call from his teacher or school administration.
The school’s attorney later told Melissa that the teacher had honored her state-mandated duty to report during an Oct. 8 parent-teacher conference, nearly two months after Nate submitted the paper.
During that October parent-teacher conference, Kendall Allen, Nate’s AP English teacher, said she was making it her mission to “figure Nate out” because he is a “tortured soul,” Melissa recalled.
Melissa was puzzled by those comments and asked Allen to explain.
“She said it is just because of some of the things (Nate) has written in essays and writing assignments but she never shared these documents with us or the specific reasoning behind her comment,” Melissa told The Frontier.
“I recall her saying that she does not want to betray his confidence. But she never mentioned suicide.”
Educators are required by state law to tell parents of a student’s expression of suicidal thoughts. But Oklahoma law does not require schools to develop a detailed plan on how a teacher is to handle a student who expresses thoughts of suicide. There is a bill before the state Legislature this year that would mandate training, something already required in at least 27 other states, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“There’s not a lot of state-mandated requirements for crisis response, it all comes down to local control,” said Beth Whittle, executive director of counseling for the state Department of Education.
Whittle wasn’t familiar with the details of student suicide in Edmond but said mandatory reporting laws fall short because not all teachers have been given the training and procedures on how to specifically respond.
Susan Parks-Schlepp, a spokesperson for Edmond Public Schools, told The Frontier the district was in the process of updating its suicide prevention and response plan but that teachers are required to immediately notify a counselor, nurse or other building administrator if they witness a student expressing suicidal thoughts.
“Teachers are directed to escort the student to the appropriate professional taking care to never leave the student alone until they can transfer care into the hands of a school counselor or administrator,” Parks-Schlepp said. “The appropriate professional contacts the parent or guardian immediately.”
But Melissa said that never happened concerning Nate’s paper.
Edmond Public Schools declined to talk with The Frontier about Nate’s death, citing the fact that his parents had hired an attorney to look into the circumstances, which could lead to possible legal action.
Allen, Nate’s English teacher, also did not respond to direct requests for comment, but the district submitted a comment on her behalf, stating they believe Allen acted properly in Nate’s situation.
“Based upon the information available to us, the family’s description of being unaware of their child’s struggles is without basis,” Parks-Schlepp said.
While Allen did not respond to a request for comment, she did submit an affidavit to Melissa’s attorney, copies of which Melissa provided to The Frontier.
“In late August 2019 I gave students an assignment to write a personal odyssey paper about a challenging experience and how they had overcome it or were working to overcome it,” Allen wrote in her affidavit.
“Before I had a chance to review Nate’s paper, he sent me an email. He said he was probably ‘overreacting.’ I told him I had not yet had a chance to read his paper.”
Allen wrote that Nate’s paper detailed “some difficulties he had in middle school with certain friendships,” including a circle of friends he referred to as the “golden triangle.”
Allen said a few days after reading Nate’s paper she asked him about the struggles he wrote about, according to her affidavit.
Nate said if he were allowed to sit by his friends, “then maybe I won’t hate this class so much and he smiled,” Allen wrote. Allen said she changed the seating chart to accommodate Nate’s request and “his attitude was more upbeat and he was generally more engaged in class.”
Six weeks later, during the parent-teacher conference with Nate’s parents, Allen shared her concerns about Nate’s paper, according to both Melissa and Allen’s affidavit.
“I told them that while Nate had a quick wit, he could also come across in class as having a dark and sardonic sense of humor,” Allen wrote in her affidavit. “I told them I am worried about him because it seems like he is a troubled soul.”
But Melissa said Allen never mentioned that Nate wrote about suicide. Allen also did not mention Nate’s reference to suicide in her affidavit.
“Troubled isn’t suicide,” Melissa said.
Nearly seven weeks later, on Nov. 21, 2019, Nate died by suicide.
‘it is preventable’
Six years ago, State Sen. Kay Floyd authored a bill that would have mandated suicide prevention training for all Oklahoma educators but the effort failed because a majority of lawmakers were opposed to making the training a mandate. Floyd was able to pass a version of the bill that made the training optional but this year she renewed her push for a statewide mandate and was able to advance Senate Bill 21 out of the Senate.
“The problem is not getting better. It’s gotten worse,” said Floyd, D-Oklahoma City.
Mental health officials say detailed training not only helps educators and students recognize the signs of suicide but also develops comfort discussing a topic that can sometimes be tough to navigate.
“We teach sex ed and our teenagers are perfectly happy talking about their sexuality but they don’t talk about mental health. There is a stigma and we don’t teach about it,” said Rep. Jeff Boatman, R-Tulsa, who has authored two bills to require suicide prevention training in schools.
House Bill 1568, which was passed by the House this year, would require all schools to include mental health instruction as part of any health education curriculum for students.
Another bill authored by Boatman, House Bill 1886, would require regular mental health training for all school staff, but the bill did not receive a hearing by the House Common Education Committee before this year’s deadline, raising questions about how successful Floyd’s similar bill will be in the House.
“I know we already ask our teachers to do an awful lot but when it comes to suicide (prevention) I think what we ought to do is give them the tools to do that more effectively and more efficiently,” Boatman said.
Rebecca Hubbard, an adjunct assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral health at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Health Sciences, said training is also a way to normalize conversations about suicide, which can be difficult for both students and educators.
“Suicide ideation is a common thing that happens to many people and talking about it, just like we would talk about diabetes or heart disease, is vital to turning the tide,” said Hubbard, who was recently the director of outreach, prevention and education for Mental Health Association Oklahoma.
“Suicide is a scary word but being able to normalize the experiences of individuals is vital and part of that is getting comfortable with the word and comfortable with the idea. Part of getting comfortable with the idea also means understanding it is preventable.”
More than one in five Oklahoma students said they had seriously considered attempting suicide, a 50 percent increase from a decade ago, according to the 2019 Oklahoma Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Hubbard said suicide prevention training could also help educators spot warning signs well before some kind of seriously disruptive behavior, such as outbursts in class or withdrawing from school.
“By the time we are seeing behavior, particularly in a public setting, students have already been struggling for quite some time,” Hubbard said. “We need to be training staff and teachers to be prepared to see mental health symptoms and signals before we are seeing any significant behavior that is disruptive to the environment.”
‘I just don’t want another kid to die‘
Evan Smartt would retreat to his car in the school parking lot when he felt anxious, a routine that was increasing during his senior year at Edmond North High School. By the middle of the first semester, he was approaching 40 absences and late notices, well over the school’s limit.
Shelli Smartt, Evan’s mother, was alarmed and asked the school to schedule a meeting. Evan was a bright and compassionate teenager who enjoyed volunteering at a local animal shelter and worked at a grocery store where his favorite task was helping the elderly carry groceries to their car.
But with an autistic diagnosis and a history of mental illness, Evan was on an individualized education program, also called an IEP. These programs are intended to provide a system of support for students who face health or physical challenges.
Shelli said the school told her not to worry about Evan’s absences. Because of his good grades – he scored a 34 on the ACT and had a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma – Evan would pass despite missing so much class. But Shelli was still concerned.
Part of Evan’s IEP plan was for Shelli to be notified within minutes if Evan was absent from class. But she said those notifications never came.
“I just didn’t feel like they were taking it as seriously as they should,” Shelli said. “This wasn’t about passing (classes).”
When the lead IEP teacher sent an email to Evan’s other teachers to invite them to attend the meeting, one teacher said she would not be able to attend but she was concerned about Evan because he does “seem to be more upset lately than normal,” according to a copy of the email obtained by The Frontier.
Shelli said she was never told about that comment.
When Evan first attended Edmond North during his junior year, a former assistant principal gave Shelli her personal number and urged her to call any time Evan needed support.
“She just absorbed that kid like he was her own,” Shelli recalled.
But headed into Evan’s senior year, a new administration at the school was less responsive and her questions about getting Evan access to a school mental health counselor were ignored, she said. Eight times during September and October Shelli said she messaged the school about Evan having a tough day at school, which included her request for an IEP meeting.
Less than three months later, on Jan. 2, 2020, Evan died of suicide at his home.
Edmond Public Schools disputes claims that school officials ignored Shelli’s pleas for help.
“At no time were school officials uncaring or dismissive toward Mrs. Smartt. A counselor returned Ms. Smartt’s email in a timely manner, communicated a willingness to meet with her, and offered the times they were available,” said Parks-Schlepp, the district’s spokesperson. “The counselor further stated that the school team would ‘continue to encourage’ her son. A meeting time of everyone involved was agreed upon and held. With regard to the student absences, the school official was offering assurance to the parent that her son’s per-class absences were below what is allowable per semester.”
At first, Shelli didn’t blame the school. She appreciated that several of Evan’s teachers and school administrators came to his funeral. But over time she heard stories of other Edmond parents who had lost a child to suicide. She heard complaints about the school system and while she initially excused it as an expression of grief by other parents, the conversations became harder to ignore.
The Frontier spoke with two other Edmond mothers who had lost a child to suicide in 2020. Both declined to speak publicly, citing concern for the privacy of their other children, but both said they didn’t feel like the district responded quickly to warning signs. One family said their son had also written about suicidal thoughts on a school computer but they were never told.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Shelli said. “Then another child was lost, and another child was lost and none of it was coming to light. When you live through this and you realize that other kids are losing their lives, it’s something that needs to be talked about.”
Shelli said she struggled to get Evan’s records from the district, including copies of IEP meeting notes. She felt as if the school viewed suicide as something to move past as quickly as possible.
Elizabeth Suddath, the executive director of prevention services for the state Department of Education, said it can be hard for schools to acknowledge they have a problem with suicide, bullying or another mental health-related issue.
While not speaking directly about Edmond schools, Suddath said she commonly hears school leaders express doubt that they have students in crisis.
“In a way that makes sense because you are very protective of your school and your environment, you always want to believe our kids are great and we don’t have any problems,” Suddath said.
But school administrators are often surprised to see data from their own schools showing high rates of bullying, suicidal ideation, drug abuse and sexual abuse, Suddath said.
“The biggest key to prevention is talking about it and equipping students and teachers with the confidence to talk about it,” Suddath said.
Edmond school officials said the district will launch a new suicide prevention policy later this year that will lean on research from the American School Counselor Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, The Trevor Project, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Parks-Schlepp, the district’s spokesperson, also told The Frontier that Edmond teaches a prevention program called the Signs of Suicide to seventh-, ninth-, and 12th-graders. Counselors and the school psychologist also perform a suicide screening.
Parks-Schlepp also said Edmond schools monitor district-provided student devices with a software warning system that scans students’ Google drive and email for written comments related to self-harm and send alerts to school officials in real-time.
It is unclear why the paper written by Nate did not result in his parents being notified and the distinct declined to comment specifically on his case, But Parks-Schlepp said the number of alerts the district receives indicating a student is considering harm to themselves or others has decreased significantly over the past two years.
Shelli said policies and procedures are important but she also hopes the district will be honest about the problem of youth suicide, especially at a time when the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic appear to be increasing mental health challenges among students across the country.
Youth visits to emergency departments for psychosocial factors increased nationwide from April to October last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is not me being a grieving mom that wants retribution, I just don’t want another kid to die,” Shelli said. “You can’t bring my kid back but not having other kids die can give meaning to my kid’s life.”
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Local resources from Mental Health Association Oklahoma can be found here.