As they did following the suicide of Ocean City High School senior Maliha Chowdhury in December 2014, the public came to the Ocean City Board of Education meeting on Wednesday night to share tearful testimonials in the wake of another student suicide.
For an hour and 50 minutes, 19 different people spoke about their own or their child’s struggles with mental health, drugs, bullying and the pressures faced by today’s students, and they asked the school board and school administration to do more to help students at risk.
Ocean City High School sophomore John Delgrande committed suicide last week.
“We don’t live in Disneyland, and we can’t pretend that we do,” said Melissa Doyle-Waid, a Methodist pastor and district parent.
“The stress levels the kids are expected to endure are more than we ever faced,” she said. “John and Maliha are kids who succeeded at committing suicide. There are a whole lot of others who have tried.”
She urged the board to reach out to other resources in the community to create broad-based effort to help young people in need.
A common theme of the public comments was that students who are not athletes or top students are often overlooked when they start to struggle.
School Superintendent Kathleen Taylor opened the meeting with a statement mourning the loss of Delgrande and outlining the district’s multi-dimensional response to to the crisis. She spoke of the need to continue to take a holistic approach.
“Students do not leave their mental health at the front door when they come to school,” she said.
Special Services Director Matt Carey outlined the extensive measures the school has taken to address mental health, bullying and drug/alcohol issues district wide, to target specific problems at the school or classroom level, and to provide individual intervention. He said the district hired a student assistance coordinator, a mental health counselor and an additional guidance counselor as part of the effort.
“Through the concern and generosity of the Sea Isle City Board of Education, yesterday we interviewed a social worker candidate with trauma clinical experience to provide additional services to the school district,” Carey said.
The district plans a parent presentation on the issues at 6 p.m. Nov. 3 in the Ocean City High School auditorium.
Parent Greta Schwartz spoke of her son’s struggles with depression and drug issues and called the mental health system at large “a complete disaster.” She said drugs are a “huge problem” at the school, not just with recreational users but with kids self-medicating. She expressed her sadness and frustrations with teachers who she said failed to respond to heartfelt emails about her son. But she acknowledged the district’s initiatives.
“Please keep working hard,” she said.
Before calling for a moment of silence, Board President Joe Clark told the public, “We have heard you,” and he said the board would continue to work to do more.
“Every teacher definitely cares about every student,” Ocean City Education Association representative Frank Butterick said in urging the board to create solutions and not targets.
His comments were echoed by school nurse Alice Wolf and by Taylor.
“If you saw the staff (in the days after Delgrande’s death), you would know how deeply they care,” Taylor said.
Board member Jon Batastini asked members of the school community to help the board by sharing more information on bullies or drug users.
“You have to be able to tell us who these people are,” he said.
Board member William Holmes, an Upper Township representative, supported Doyle-Waid’s push for a community effort.
“Perception is sometimes reality,” he said. “Everybody needs to come together.”