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Searchligt New Mexico Magazine

© 2019 Searchlight New Mexico.  |  All rights reserved. For republishing terms, see Guidelines. 

Images by Don Usner

INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

The problem of teen suicide

October 15, 2019 Update: Following the publication of 'A Chill in the Air,' numerous Albuquerque Public Schools teachers and students demanded greater action and support from district administrators. At a board meeting, students asked for peer-to-peer programs, different prevention programming, and licensed in-school therapists to help counter what they called a "mental health crisis." The APS school board said they are preparing to roll out newly funded programs to be implemented in the upcoming school year.

 

Just before dawn, as the Albuquerque sky filled the house with thin, pale blue light, 16-year-old Aurra Gardner took the small handgun out from behind the bed in her mother’s bedroom.

Kerianne Gardner, Aurra’s mother, sat in the living room, typing an email, listening idly as her other daughters tied their shoes and packed their lunches. She heard what sounded like a door slam and assumed it was Aurra’s cello case falling over.

She walked down the hall and tried the door of the bedroom. It was locked. No one in the Gardner house ever locked a door. When there was no response, Kerianne started to panic. She ran and found a pin to unlock the handle, but she couldn’t unlock the door, her hands trembling and damp. She asked Brian, her partner, to do it.

The lock clicked. He went in the room and emerged seconds later, pale and shaking.

“Do I need to call 911?” Kerianne asked from the hallway.

“Yes,” he said.

In 2017, Aurra Gardner was among 46 New Mexican youths between 10 and 19 who ended their own lives, and one of 16 who did so with a firearm. New Mexico has the fifth highest youth suicide rate in the country — approximately 16 per 100,000 residents, double the national average. 

Health professionals, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies have rushed to address the crisis, but their efforts have been fragmented and uncoordinated. In early 2018, the Department of Health appointed a prevention coordinator who is now in the early stages of implementing an official suicide prevention strategy. Teachers in Albuquerque Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, are pushing a cash-strapped leadership for better training, program innovation, community schools, and mental health resources. 

For Aurra — a shy, motivated, creative young woman — the support of a caring mother proved insufficient to counteract a quick and troubling slide toward her last decision. And while there’s a tendency following any suicide to assign blame — to a parent, a gun, a school, a moment of crisis or mental illness — Aurra’s death rebukes such thinking, illuminating the most pressing questions that families and experts struggle to understand.

Kerianne, Zia and Samaria Gardner in Aurra's room.  Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

High performance, high tension

In 2016, during her first semester of sophomore year at Eldorado High School, Aurra busily worked to maintain high marks. She was in Honors English and took Advanced Placement courses in psychology and world history.


A reserved rule-follower, according to everyone who knew her, she played cello in the Eldorado and Albuquerque youth orchestras; her mother was on the Eldorado orchestra board; her younger sisters attended middle and elementary schools nearby. Aurra loved to draw, write poetry and study birds, especially chickadees. She would climb the trees in her backyard and sit there all day, naming the species of every bird that visited.


Aurra’s standards for herself were high, and they got higher the more she excelled. She scored in the 99th percentile on her 10th grade PSAT. At parent-teacher conferences, instructors told Kerianne what a joy it was to have Aurra in their classes. “She had this inner light,” said Ruth Striegel, her orchestra teacher. 

Then in early February 2017, with midterm exams looming, Kerianne noticed Aurra’s stress rising. She was panicking about organizing her AP World History notes and sleeping less than usual. Kerianne emailed and called the counseling offices at Eldorado, but a response was slow in coming.

“I had to just show up to get their attention”

On the morning of Feb. 21, Aurra hid in her closet. She told her mother that her teachers hated her and worried she might fail her upcoming tests. Kerianne, who still had not received a response from the school, walked Aurra into a counselor’s office herself.

“I had to just show up to get their attention,” Kerianne said. In her recollection, the counselor asked Aurra if she really believed her teachers hated her. Aurra responded in muted tones.

Kerianne asked the counselor to talk to Aurra on a weekly basis, and the counselor said she would.


“Aurra wasn’t called in again,” Kerianne said. (Eldorado administrators and APS declined to comment on Aurra’s death and told Kerianne that they do not have counseling records on Aurra.) 


The week of March 6, Aurra had a panic attack following a test. Kerianne told her, “Just go to the nurse and call me if you feel sick and anxious. You can make up the test later.”


Instead, Aurra hid in the school bathroom and the empty orchestra room to avoid class, spurring the automated attendance system to call Kerianne. At home, her breath was quick and shallow when Kerianne asked her why she’d ditched class. 


Kerianne felt she had exhausted her options to get support from Eldorado, so she sought out a therapist at High Desert Community Psychological Center. During the appointment, Aurra talked about stabbing herself but did not mention a concrete plan to hurt herself. The therapist did not share details of the session with her mother because, as she later told a detective, she found no reason for immediate concern.

Kerianne tried to remain upbeat: when Aurra wouldn’t speak, she sent her lighthearted and supportive texts, something that has shown helpful in clinical environments. She also took Aurra and her sisters to an archery range, to a pizza restaurant, and to a family friend’s home to try and improve her mood.


The next Monday, Aurra skipped her classes again and spent the morning roaming the trails of the nearby Bear Canyon Arroyo. Once again, Kerianne received an automated call informing her about the absence.

Samaria, Kerianne and Zia Gardner draw in the sand in Bear Canyon Arroyo.  Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico

“You have to show up. It’s part of school… And when you feel overwhelmed, go to the nurse and call me,” Kerianne told her later that night. She felt something dreadful, like a curtain falling between them. But at this point, Aurra had grown frustrated by her mother’s attention. 


“Aurra, do you want to kill yourself?” Kerianne asked.
She shrugged and shook her head no.


After Aurra went to sleep, Kerianne typed a letter addressed to Eldorado staff:
“Aurra Gardner, 10th grade, experienced a panic attack or possibly some form of a nervous breakdown … Aurra was in a nearly catatonic state and refused to speak to me… We request an accountability and wellness check-in daily from her assigned counselor.”


Kerianne walked Aurra to her first class the next morning, watched her sit down, and then delivered copies of the letter to several teachers as well as the principal’s and counselor’s offices.


That afternoon, assistant principal Rodney Suazo called to schedule a meeting for the next day.


The following morning, Kerianne and Aurra’s siblings heard what they thought was the sound of a cello case falling.

Changing patterns and prevention efforts

The culture around suicide at Eldorado, according to interviews with more than a dozen students, was simultaneously casual and deeply felt. “People talked or joked about killing themselves at least weekly,” said Rachel Rhykerd, a student who graduated this past May. Jokes like “KMS” (kill myself) and “I wanna die lol” routinely surfaced as memes in texts and on social media.


Narratives of suicide were embedded in the curriculum. In Aurra’s ninth grade English class, she read the 2007 novel Thirteen Reasons Why, which follows the suicide of a 17-year-old girl. Several former Eldorado students expressed concern over teachers assigning the book, which in 2017  was challenged or banned in more American schools than any other book, according to the American Library Association. It has since been popularized by the Netflix series by the same title — released two weeks after Aurra died — and research has focused on both its harmful and helpful effects.


Aurra’s death was one in a series that has troubled the school since 2016.


“We’ve lost a student to suicide every year for the past four years,” said Tanya Kuhnee, who teaches English at Eldorado. Records and interviews confirm this figure.


“Every suicide has resurfaced the emotions from previous suicides. It’s really affected our kids deeply,” Kuhnee said, adding that in the fall of 2018, six students in her classes attempted suicide. 


Albuquerque Public Schools serves roughly 84,000 students, and in the last three academic years, suicide referrals have risen an average of more than 30 percent, according to referral records provided to Searchlight New Mexico. Between 2010 and 2016, an average of 1,024 referrals were made per year; in the 2017-2018 school year, there were 1,511. Nevertheless, Eldorado did not lead the district in referrals among high schools; the rise is attributed to increased referrals at middle schools.


“We’re not concerned about the numbers because these are the number of times we got to intervene… this means our prevention methods are working,” said Vicki Price, Senior Director of Counseling Services at APS. Currently, APS contracts with the Southwest Family Guidance Center to provide immediate intervention services. 

 

Counselors and social workers at APS say that suicide is top of mind in their training and dialogue.


At Eldorado, the pattern used to be the story of a kid getting bullied, said Sean Thomas, who has taught social studies at Eldorado for 14 years. “Now it’s also star athletes and star students, the whole gamut.” Upon inspecting medical investigator records, obituaries and news clips in conjunction with extensive interviews, Searchlight New Mexico was able to verify that Eldorado has lost top students and athletes to suicide. 

 

Despite five requests to APS, Eldorado Principal Martin Sandoval was not available to comment.

Thomas said the faculty at Eldorado has received cautious inquiries from teachers at other schools wondering what’s going on at Eldorado. “But what’s sad is that Eldorado is trying really hard,” he said.


Indeed, Eldorado has introduced more anti-suicide programming in the last two years than any other public school in Albuquerque. The police and fire department were brought in to evaluate protocols; students advocated for Breaking the Silence (a small-group discussion guide for communities to combat stigma and cope with lives lost), and the counseling department conducted schoolwide QPR training (“Question. Persuade. Refer.”), a nationally used and notably expensive awareness and prevention seminar. 


Then, this past March, another student took his own life, and many students turned to their teachers, frustrated. “They said, ‘We’ve been working on this. How can this still be happening?’” said Kuhnee.


Teachers and administrators, too, have been beside themselves. Several recall seeing the principal and instructors alike crying, exasperated and exhausted at all-staff meetings in the days following a suicide.

 
Faced with these continuing cycles of anguish, Kuhnee, Thomas and members of the Albuquerque Teachers Federation have pushed for incisive approaches to deal with mental health before and after major events. 


“There really aren’t changes happening or resources available to help support teens with mental health issues, and the stigma is still great,” said Thomas.


At the start of each academic year, when teachers attend meetings on new textbooks and policies, they have asked for more innovative training and more probing outside speakers to address ways in which teachers can be mindful of mental health concerns. And, according to Kuhnee, “every year the district says, ‘We don’t have the resources for that.’” 


APS says another series of QPR trainings is scheduled for Eldorado in the fall, but this, according to Jonathan Singer, associate professor at Loyola University Chicago and board president of the American Association of Suicidology, is a misstep. 


“QPR is a great program… but it doesn't work well as an annual training because people know the information and it doesn't go into as much depth as longer trainings,” Singer said. “Such education and awareness is great, but it hasn't been shown to reduce suicide risk in youth. One solution is universal screening.”

Zia, Kerianne and Samaira Gardner in the Bear Canyon Arroyo near their house. . Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico 

 

Through a combination of assessments, surveys, and referrals, school-based universal screening programs like Signs of Suicide have been shown to reduce attempts and ideation among middle-school and high-school students. But such screenings are labor- and cost-intensive, and they often only occur once or twice a year.

Teachers expressed similar concerns about the lack of depth that QPR provides, adding that they feel ill-prepared to deal with classroom conversations following a suicide. “I don’t feel trained or equipped to handle what happens after, to grapple with 30 or 40 kids’ reactions,” said Kuhnee. “The basic logistical support needed from the district is just not there. Nothing really systemically deals with trauma for everyone left behind.”

APS Counseling responds that it always sends in crisis resources and makes them available long after a tragedy, and adds that it is constantly evaluating its response services. Price said that, after an incident of suicide, the office conducts evaluations to identify the services that were provided as well as the number of times a student reached out to counselors and what, if anything, resulted of prior communication.

Current and retired teachers, along with several counselors, agree that the district’s counseling services need more dedicated resources. They cite chronic understaffing and overwhelming workloads — Eldorado typically assigns more than 300 students to each counselor, according to Thomas.

“They manage too high a population,” said Thomas. “They’re overworked, buried in administrative paper, and there is really no one on campus who focuses strictly on mental health.”

Counselors are expected to manage students’ schedules and credits, attendance, college applications, scholarships, substance abuse intervention and summer programming. Even so, according to Halama, 60 percent to 70 percent of an APS counselor’s time is dedicated to crisis intervention, such as familial problems, interpersonal relationships and other issues. 

In a statement detailing APS’ 2019 legislative agenda, the district included “social-emotional support and services for students” among its priorities, but no related bills or funding streams were passed. 

Community therapists (who are not directly employed by APS) have been placed in more than 100 APS schools, though resources and incentives for behavioral health professionals to move into such roles remain scarce.

One student, who spoke anonymously of his struggle with mental health at Eldorado, painted a stark picture. An effusive 16-year-old who enjoyed graphic design and animation, he struggled with depression and started ditching school every day after his mother dropped him off. “The only thing the school ever did was a robocall to my mom. No administrator or counselor ever reached out … it was so easy for me to slip through the cracks.” He said he eventually dropped out and sought therapy.

Zia, Kerianne and Samaira Gardner in the Bear Canyon Arroyo near their house. . Don J. Usner / Searchlight New Mexico 

The limits of reason 


Now, two years since Aurra died, Kerianne doesn’t traffic in blame or self-reprimanding questions. She doesn’t admonish the school or a counselor or seize on details like how much time Aurra spent in the pages of any one book. She also doesn’t blame the gun, but said that she won’t live with firearms in her home again.


The family had long kept guns locked in a safe in the house, but after a couple of incidents — a burglary and a man seen jumping over the back fence — Kerianne said she “stepped up our efforts to be safe.” She hid a .40-caliber semiautomatic pistol in the master bedroom and told Aurra where it was in case of a break-in.


Aurra was well acquainted with how to safely operate a firearm. She had participated in rifle classes at summer camps and had taken a gun safety course.


“There are many ways she could’ve done things and came out with the same result,” Kerianne said. She is often reminded of this; she receives messages from parents or community members every time another APS student is lost to suicide. It’s a patent reminder, she says. Aurra’s memory, in its many shades, belongs not just to Kerianne but to a generation of young people affected by suicide.


Kerianne will often look to the trees or above, to the Cooper’s hawks that glide over Albuquerque.


“There is nothing and everything left to say.”

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK) or go to speakingofsuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
 

This story is published in partnership with TheTrace.org