Guest Column

We Will Grow Stronger Each Day

One of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a principal was the raw grief, sadness, and tears from our students during the memorial services for the two FHS students who died by suicide

By Michele Paine

It’s hard to describe what it’s like to be part of a suicide cluster. During the past seven months, we’ve experienced a number of adolescent suicides in our community, and as principal of Flathead High School, I have to say it has been rough. In my preparation to become a school administrator, there was no preparation for this. Part of my job is ensuring student safety and well-being, and one of the most challenging aspects for me is feeling that somehow, I have failed our students.

When suicides happen in a school, there is initial shock, grief, and a gathering of the school crisis team. As with other crisis events, we have procedures and protocols that help us through these difficult times. The crisis team at Flathead High School has met a lot during these past several months. What members of the community may not know is that our adolescents are connected to each other, across schools. Even though my school experienced suicides of two students, we experienced ALL the suicides because of these connections in our community. Both students and staff were hit hard by each suicide.  

One of the hardest things I’ve experienced as a principal was the raw grief, sadness, and tears from our students during the memorial services for the two FHS students who died by suicide. We try so hard to shield students from many things – bullying, hazing, harassment, intimidation – but protecting students from tragedies like suicide is a difficult task. However, during this difficult time it became apparent to me that there are greater organizations that support the mental health needs of our community, such as the Nate Chute Foundation, Tamarack Grief Center, and Charlie Health, all of whom reached out to support us. 

It is heartening to say that as a school, we are learning lessons for the future. We received many cards and notes from across the state, from adults and children in our greater community who sent positive messages of support. I personally had a number of students reach out with ideas to help promote resilience and positivity. We took on a few of those ideas and are moving forward. Our focus involves promoting self-care and Brave Talk, a classroom culture-building activity that fosters connections and safe space for conversation. Those of us who work with students every day learned some great things from Dr. Scott Poland, a national suicide cluster expert who spent time in our schools and community. Instead of feeling helpless, we are empowered.  

As a leader I know it’s important to facilitate leadership in others. A freshman student came up with the idea for our orange and black bracelets, which say, “Your Story is Not Over. Be Brave.” We gave one out to each student. There is a strong sense of positive momentum coming from this tragic experience. Our community, both adolescents and adults, is committed to moving forward together. I see our students come together, cry together, and band together to work to prevent further suicides. I talk to frantic and worried parents and frazzled educators, who are taking the right steps to provide support to our kids. My school community is full of caring and empathetic people. We will grow stronger each day.

Michele Paine is the principal at Flathead High School.

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