- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2003

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Mary Elliott got the call for help on a Monday night. A “suicidal male teen” was at a convenience store, not far from his high school.

When she arrived, Miss Elliott — a nurse on Des Moines’ crisis-response team — found the young man still dressed in the suit he’d worn that day to the funeral of another teen who’d killed himself. He was relatively calm and, at first, denied he was considering suicide.

But by the end of the night, he told Miss Elliott even more than she’d anticipated: He wasn’t the only one who felt like ending his life. And although he did so reluctantly, he gave her names of eight other teens from his high school who also had talked about suicide — and, in some cases, even said how they’d do it.

“All of this is too much for a kid to handle,” she remembered him repeating several times that night.

In the days that followed, media reports referred to a suicide “pact.” But those who eventually spoke with the other young people said there was never anything written or signed.

It was, they say, a loose verbal agreement — “I’ll do it if you do it” — that some of the teens seemed to take more seriously than others.

Whatever the case, the events of that night left many in Des Moines shaken — and since have prompted discussions about how to best deal with a problem that plagues communities nationwide. In Iowa, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those age 15 to 24, after car crashes. Nationally, it ranks third for that age group.

“These kids don’t understand, really, that suicide is final — and that prom will go on without them, the football game will go on. Life will go on without them,” said Dave Spieker, another crisis-response nurse who was on duty that October night.

As the midnight hour approached, both he and Miss Elliott met with school officials to pore over registration records and yearbooks to come up with a more complete list of names and addresses.

The details they’d been given were sketchy. They knew all the students attended Lincoln High School.

Still, the crisis team and school officials knew they had to act quickly.

It had already been a rough fall for the roughly 2,100 students at Lincoln High, a stately red brick building surrounded by oak trees in a neighborhood of modest homes.

In September, three male students died in a single-car crash, leaving the young driver — the lone survivor — charged with vehicular homicide.

Not long after, 15-year-old Billy Metzger hanged himself in his bedroom closet.

“Most people are doing OK now. But not a day goes by when we don’t think about what happened — even if we didn’t know the guys who died very well,” Josh Rector, a senior at Lincoln High, said recently.

School officials did their best to deal with the extreme grief. They offered counseling for anyone who asked and, fearing copycat suicides, asked teachers to watch for students who were struggling emotionally.

Crisis workers determined that some of the suicidal teens had been struggling well before the deaths of their four classmates.

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