Canyon Crest Academy looks toward hope, change after campus tragedy

At the San Dieguito Union High School District’s Nov. 1 meeting, parents, students and staff had some tough conversations following two tragic incidents at Canyon Crest Academy. The high school experienced the suicide of a student on Oct. 25 and an incident in which a student harmed himself on campus on Oct. 30.

“We have been severely tested by recent events but we are pulling together and looking out for one another,” said Melody Li, the CCA student board representative. “There are more questions than answers at the moment but I do want to say that I’m proud of our school. I’m proud of who we are and aspire to be. The conversations we are having now and continue to have are made easier by the work we’ve been doing in the past two years with Yellow Ribbon Week and social emotional learning.”

On the morning of Oct. 25, new Superintendent Robert Haley said he was having his first meeting with all of the school principals when Canyon Crest Academy Principal Brett Killeen had to accept a phone call informing him of the loss of his student. The following week on Oct. 30, a CCA student injured himself on campus and was admitted to the hospital, according to a message sent out to parents. With respect to the privacy of students, the district was unable to share more details.

“It’s very difficult to say the word suicide. It’s not easy. It’s something that has impacted me both professionally and personally,” Haley said, growing emotional speaking to a board room of parents and students. “I know that everybody here tonight wants every life that can be saved to be saved.”

On Oct. 31, Haley sent a letter to all district families regarding the incidents and SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir thanked him for his “leadership, empathy and compassion” on one of his first weeks on the job.

“We care deeply about the issue of self-harm and suicide. We want to give everyone in our community information and tools to have conversations about self-harm and suicide so that we can help save lives,” Haley said.

On Nov. 7 at CCA, the district held a presentation with Stan Collins, a suicide prevention specialist at the San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council and will hold another one on Wednesday, Nov. 14 at La Costa Canyon High School at 5:45 p.m. The presentation will give parents a “toolkit” on how they can increase connectedness with their child as well as tips on self-harm and suicide prevention.

In a video message posted to students on Oct. 31, Principal Killeen spoke about how CCA’s success is often measured by AP tests, rankings, college acceptances and test scores.

“These numbers, rankings, measurements and labels add up to a lot of expectations and it’s not healthy nor sustainable,” Killeen said. “You have the right to be a kid. You have the right to make mistakes…You have a right to be healthy, happy, well-rounded and balanced. You are special… and that has nothing to do with academic achievement.”

Killeen said CCA students and staff work to make “a big school feel small” and ensure students feel inclusion, connection, acceptance, kindness and the freedom to be “silly and weird”.

“We’re going to be there for each other,” Killeen said encouraging his students to be themselves, to celebrate wins with humility, to learn, reflect and grow when they lose. “Ask for help when you need it.”

During public comment, district parent Rita Raden was critical of the district and principal’s response.

“Leaders address problems head on,” Raden said, noting Killeen’s message was disappointing because he never used the word suicide and only offered platitudes. She said a real leader would work to meet with students on what the next steps should be and how they can improve student support.

Canyon Crest Academy students Ashley Jabro and Jasmine Werry said it has been hard to see their friends and the whole community mourning.

“To pretend CCA doesn’t have areas of improvement is wrong,” Ashley and Jasmine said. “Without a cohesive statement from the district, it puts everyone at unease and leads to state of confusion and gossip.”

The girls said even there at the meeting, people were spreading rumors about attempted suicides and what they are going through as students.

The students said what they are looking for is support from the district and they have felt it at school-level from staff as midterms were cancelled in one class following the student’s death. Ashley and Jasmine also said most students’ reaction to Killeen’s video was gratitude.

“Adults needlessly fighting and repeating empty platitudes about our safety while screaming at each other doesn’t do anything but disappoint us and stress us out more,” said Ashley and Jasmine about what they have witnessed in attending board meetings. “What we need is action and real change in how we address this culture of toxic competition and insane amounts of stress.”

CCA teacher Stacy Yates spoke about the work that the Raven Wellness Team of parents, staff and students do with social and emotional learning. They have partnered with The You School, a program that promotes self-awareness, self-confidence and self-direction for weekly workshops and the Raven Advisory Council gives students a voice with administration on issues that arise.

Stephanie Kowac, the parent leader of the Raven Wellness Team, said following the tragedies, she has asked herself what more could’ve been done.

“I’m so proud of what we do at CCA but will it ever be enough to protect our kids? We are the highest-ranked public school in California but at what cost?” Kowac said.

Kowac told a story about visiting her daughter in college over the weekend and how her daughter said college was so much easier than high school, where she took seven AP classes at CCA. Kowac said parents and the district can help alleviate some of that pressure on students.

“We need to regroup and make sure we’re providing a safe place for our kids. They need a break from the constant stress of the next ‘A,’” Kowac said. “As a district we should consider limiting the number of AP classes students take.”

Torrey Pines High School parent Heather Dugdale agreed that the pressures of “over-achievement” are staggering at the school, where the average GPA is 3.8 and 82 percent of students at the school are in one to five AP classes. As Dugdale noted in the last two years, two Torrey Pines students have taken their own lives.

During public comment, parent Lea Wolf said during her campaign for the school board she learned that some students feel the district may say it cares about mental health but their current measures are not effective. She said with Superintendent Haley, she would like to see a shift in the district’s culture and for them to make meaningful changes with action.

The students, like Wolf, said they, too, would return to the board to ask for change.

“People have told us that we’re pawns of some teacher conspiracy and we’re not. We’re just students. We love our school, we care about our peers and we badly want to express what we’re feeling and make the changes that we know that we need,” the girls said. “We are here, we are talking and we care…When we come to you in the next few weeks asking for changes to be made at school, we want your support.”

Reach out for help at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or Youth Crisis Line 800-843-5200. More resources can be found at the Society for the Prevention for Teen Suicide sptsusa.org/teens/ and sduhsd.net/Parents--Students/Student-Support--Wellness/Suicide-Prevention/index.html

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