HIGHLAND — Don Watkins described his youngest daughter Micah as an affectionate child and a gifted student whose social anxiety made it hard for her to maintain friendships.
One evening while she was out with friends, she was sexually abused, Watkins said, which triggered a difficult period of depression, loneliness and therapy that ended Jan. 14 when Micah took her own life.
"This is an experience I never dreamed I would have," Watkins said as he emotionally recounted his daughter's story to an auditorium of parents and community members Wednesday at Lone Peak High School.
The meeting was held in response to a recent string of deaths, in which two Lone Peak students committed suicide and another died from an accidental overdose in an eight-week period. Watkins and his wife, along with the parents of Brandon Vance-Okuno and Jake Randall shared their experiences as a cautionary tale to parents, but also as a message of love, patience and hope.
"Our Micah is at peace," Watkins said, "and we are at peace, though we miss her desperately."
Mindy Vance-Okuno said her son Brandon's personality "couldn't fit in a room." He enjoyed skateboarding and was one merit badge away from receiving his Eagle Scout award.
Brandon had struggled with substance abuse for about a year and was making strides toward complete sobriety when cough syrup triggered a backward-slide that resulted in his suicide on New Year's Eve.
"I would take him back in a second with all his troubles," she said. "There's not enough good words in the dictionary or time to tell you all the great things about my son."
Since the school year began, six secondary Alpine School District students have died from suicide or drug-related causes. In addition to Lone Peak, the other deaths occurred at Timpanogos, Mountain View and East Shore high schools.
Alpine spokesperson Rhonda Bromley said the district typically sees one or two suicides in a year and added that for a single school to be dealing with three incidents in such a small window of time is particularly troubling.
"It has brought it to the forefront of everyone's mind at every school," she said. "This is not a Lone Peak issue, it is a community issue."
The families at Wednesday's meeting at Lone Peak all struck a similar theme: even the most seemingly safe students are exposed to these problems in school, whether it be feelings of depression, low self-worth or the amount of drugs that are readily available.
"We had no idea," Jolene Randall said of her son Jake's substance abuse. "No parent should have to try to resuscitate their child on the couch."
Jake Randall died on Feb. 25 of a heroin overdose. Since then the Randall's have become activists, working with local law enforcement and school administrators to educate parents and encourage students to come forward with their own needs for help and those of their friends.
Randall said that in talking with students that visited Jake in the hospital, roughly three-fourths said they encounter alcohol or drugs every day. She said almost every student she asked knew where to get drugs if they wanted to.
Her husband Steve Randall said he recently spoke with an elementary student who was worried about transitioning to Mountain Ridge Jr. High School because of the students who sell drugs there.
"We have to acknowledge that there's a problem," he said.
Teen suicide was a recurring theme during the recent legislative session. A bill requiring school districts to hold parent seminars on subjects like bullying, drug abuse, mental health and suicide was defeated while another bill mandating suicide prevention training for educators was signed into law Monday by Gov. Gary Herbert. Debate for both bills was backdropped by the suicides of two Clearfield High students.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff testified during the session that suicide is the second leading cause of teen death in Utah.
"We surprisingly are killing ourselves at a rate higher than the national average," Shurtleff told the House Standing Education Committee.
Like many Alpine secondary schools, Lone Peak utilizes a tip line where students can text or email information to administrators about concerns for student safety. Lone Peak Assistant Principal Kenley Brown said the program has been in place for a number of years but the school has put an extra push into making students aware of the tip line after the recent deaths.
Brown said administrators take every tip seriously and have received 20 since January, including four that required crisis counseling.
"It definitely led to us getting help for some students who needed it," he said.
At the beginning of Wednesday's meeting, Lone Peak Principal Chip Koop spoke of the wonderful students in the Alpine-Highland area, but added that even the best students don't always make the best choices.
"I have on my desk a list of 12 students that we are watching," Koop said.
Steve Randall said that it's important that students know they can approach their teachers, administrators and parents about problems at school. He applauded the high school tip lines and said that students and others who sells drugs need to know they are one text message away from punitive consequences.
"We're going to do some things that let the dealers know we know you're here and we're looking for you," he said.
The parents also spoke of how it's important for parents not to give up on their children who are struggling with depression or substance abuse. Vance-Okuno spoke of how recreation had been instrumental during Brandon's rehabilitation and mentioned how the family had joined a rock climbing gym together.
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