Custer County Middle and High School was rocked by another teen suicide last Tuesday, February 10. The 15-year-old has been identified as Michael “Mikey” Neal, son of Debbie Neal Spatziani.
Neal was in ninth grade and described as one of the school’s “most outgoing, kindest, happiest and well-liked students,” according to Superintendent Chris Selle.
Neal suffered a single gunshot wound to the head, allegedly shooting himself with a gun from a friend’s house. A memorial service was held Sunday at the school and attracted hundreds of family members, friends, fellow students and community members.
Selle spoke at the Rotary Club meeting on Monday, February 16 about Neal and the school’s prevention and response plan.
“There are a number of students who share suicidal tendencies,” Selle said. “There has been a reference to a suicide pact, but I can’t confirm that there has been one.”
Since fall of 2013, the school has identified a group of 15 students who have been labeled as “high risk” for suicide. Neal was one of the students. However, he was number 13 or 14 on the list and “not high up that list at all,” according to Selle.
Since Neal’s death, Selle announced that the high risk student numbers have grown to almost 30 as of Monday.
“I’m confident that the number will drop,” Selle said. “That list will become shorter as these students deal with their grief. Several are not at high risk.”
Selle added that it is possible for there to be more at-risk students who have not been identified yet.
Selle stated that rumor of a suicide pact among some students reached the administration last fall. Since the school received the information about the alleged pact, the 15 initial students identified as high risk have undergone counseling.
“Until Tuesday,” Selle said, “all indications showed that we had been making progress. Apparently it wasn’t enough.”
The remaining high-risk students will undergo a threat assessment, as well as monitoring and further counseling.
It has also been discovered that there were students who knew what Neal had planned.
Selle and Crisis Team members are initiating a “culture change,” where students will be comfortable and bold enough to speak up when they hear of someone who wants to cause self-harm.
The culture change will begin with the help of ad hoc parent groups and other community support.
“This extends outside of the school,” Selle said. “My biggest concern is that whatever we do has to be sustainable. Therefore, everything we do must be thoughtful and intentional.”
Selle explained that the school is working with SolVista Health, and that the names of kids who are at high risk have been shared with law enforcement and mental health.
Out of the initial 15 students, there are six boys who may have made the alleged suicide pact. Selle stated that the boys are under a gang mentality that they are each other’s family.
“It’s the mentality of ‘stick with your brothers,’” Selle said. “Our goal is to break that mentality.”
One of the Rotarians at the meeting questioned Selle on Neal’s motivation behind killing himself, as well as why there might be a suicide pact.
“I don’t have an answer to your question on what would cause this,” Selle admitted. “Suicide is the result of hopelessness and the lie that the world would be better off without you. There are kids in the initial 15 group, as well as the larger group, whose home lives are not ideal and that feeds off the cohesiveness that ‘these (other students) are my family.’”
Selle explained the school’s prevention and response plan, breaking it down into four main points: lockout, lockdown, evacuate and shelter.
Lockout would be a situation where there is an outside threat, such as a prison escapee who could be headed to Custer County. The school would be shut down from the outside.
Lockdown would be if there was a threat inside of the school. In that case, classroom doors would be locked, lights turned off and students told to hide. The purpose is to give the appearance of not being inside the room. Students who might be in the hallway would need to find a place to hide. The most common reason for this is school shootings.
Evacuate would be during a fire or a bomb threat. The elementary school evacuates to the Bowling Alley. The middle school and high school would evacuate to Valley Bible.
Shelter is not a common occurrence, though would take place if there was a tornado or other severe weather.
“The best way to mitigate disaster,” Selle said, “is controlled access to the school and to have a well prepared staff.”
Selle admitted that the school needs to do better communicating with parents during these situations, and stated that during an evacuation parents must show proof of identification before picking their child up from one of the evacuation sites.
Neal’s death follows on the heels of the gun death of a seventh grader who committed suicide in early April of last year.
– J.E. Ward