Christina worried when she found her 16-year-old boyfriend Jacob Goyette drunk and crying at school in the spring of 2018.
A sophomore at Acton-Boxborough Regional High School, Christina already knew too many people who had died by suicide, so her mind immediately went to the worst-case scenario.
She says she left Jacob with a friend and went to the school social worker for help. She told her that she was worried about his safety and says the social worker promised to reach out to Jacob’s family.
“I thought she was going to do something,” said Christina, who is using her middle name to protect her privacy because she is a minor. “They didn't do anything.”
Some two months later, Christina got the worst news possible: Jacob killed himself in the treehouse in his backyard in Shirley.
Now Jacob's mother, Shannon Goyette, says she’s planning to sue the school district for failing to protect her son from harm. Her attorney, Jeffrey Beeler, sent a letter to the school district in September saying it is “inexcusable” that school officials didn’t notify her about Christina’s concerns.
Jacob was the fifth young person who had attended Acton-Boxborough Regional High School to die by suicide in about two years, a tragic loss first reported in the Boston Globe. Goyette says she didn’t know she could be any more devastated after Jacob’s death. But she was floored to find out later that someone had tried to raise alarms that he was at risk.
She believes if she had been told, she could have saved her youngest son’s life. She knew that Jacob struggled with anxiety and ADHD. But she did not understand how critical the situation was.
“To have someone say to you that there was a chance we could have helped Jacob because somebody came forward on his behalf and that was a possibility we could have changed things,’’ Goyette said in a recent interview, alongside Christina, in her Shirley home, “it was just devastating.”
School Superintendent Peter Light declined to comment on the specifics of Goyette’s attorney's letter. He said the school is committed to supporting the Goyette family and other students. The school social worker could not be reached for comment.
But Goyette’s story puts a focus on the responsibilities and challenges of public schools to respond to the increasing mental health needs of students.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people across the United States. More than 200 youths age 9 to 18 died by suicide in Massachusetts between 2009 and 2017, a 48 percent increase from the previous nine-year period, according to the US Centers for Disease Control. More than 12 percent of Massachusetts high school students said they seriously considered suicide in the last year, according to a 2017 state survey.
Many health experts are cautious about laying blame when tragedies occur. But most health specialists agree that school personnel, in contact with students for a large part of the day, can be a key resource in providing help.
“We need those adults who are around students to know what to do, to know what to hear, to know what to look for and how to adequately respond,’’ said Larry Berkowitz, director of the Needham-based Riverside Trauma Center that provides suicide prevention and what is known as “postvention” counseling after a suicide. “It could save a lot of lives.”
Seth Kleinman, a school social worker in Danvers and adjunct professor at Simmons University, says he doesn’t have enough information to know if the social worker did anything wrong by not contacting the family. He said she should have done an assessment to determine if Jacob was in danger.
“It's really easy in retrospect, after something terrible like this happens, to assess that she did not perform her duties effectively,’’ he said.
To help save lives, state lawmakers passed a law in 2014 directing public schools to provide at least two hours of suicide awareness and prevention training to “all licensed personnel” every three years. But the law was “subject to appropriation” and no funding was ever allocated. So state education officials describe the language as “guidance.”
Instead, middle schools and high schools are providing a patchwork of mental health awareness and suicide prevention classes, health specialists and school officials say. Programs are funded by government resources and private grants, some funded by families who’ve lost children to suicide.
In September, Attorney General Maura Healey launched a partnership with a national nonprofit, the Sandy Hook Promise Foundation, to provide mental health and violence prevention training to nearly 140,000 students and teachers across the state. Healey is pushing for legislation to expand the program statewide.
“Our middle and high school students are increasingly experiencing anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders,” Healey said in recent testimony to support the bill.
State school officials say they don’t track which schools are implementing the suicide training recommended by state law. Only three of the state’s largest 20 school districts — Boston, Lowell and Fall River — responded to a WGBH survey saying they have followed the guidelines available on the education department’s website.
Many school officials say they need more help. Bedford High School Principal Heather Galante says the small suburban school suffered its first student suicide in recent memory in March. Like Jacob, the boy who died was 16 years old. Since then the school has brought in a team from the Riverside Trauma Center to work with students and teachers affected by the loss.
“We need more clinicians. We need more help,’’ Galante said. “And the state needs to fund that. I mean, if they care about kids, they will help us fund these mandates.”
The Acton-Boxborough Regional School District says it’s been providing suicide prevention training to faculty since 2013. Last year, it expanded training to all staff every two years. Light, the school superintendent, referred to a school website that includes an array of resources dedicated to student mental health and suicide prevention. Among them is information advising students to talk to a trusted adult.
Christina says she did just that, but her action went nowhere. She regrets that she didn’t contact Jacob’s family directly when she found him drinking a mixture of vodka and Gatorade out of a bottle. She says he was sobbing and wouldn’t explain why.
Christina says after Jacob died she was mad at herself, mad at Jacob and mad at the school for not helping. She dropped out of school and now is working to complete high school online. She first was afraid to tell Jacob's mom what happened. Now she wants to tell her story.
“I tried to help Jacob but it didn't work out,” she said, “so maybe I can help someone else.’’
Jennifer Kelliher, managing director for the Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention, says she likes to think more about opportunity than responsibility when talking about what schools can do. People should be talking more about suicide everywhere, she says, including in their communities, at work and in schools. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask someone if they are thinking about killing themselves, she says.
“There's a myth that talking about suicide is going to put the idea in someone's head,’’ she said. “We know that that's absolutely not true.’’
Attorney Beeler, who is representing Goyette, also represented the family of a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who sued the university after their son killed himself in 2009.
The case resulted in a landmark 2018 ruling by the state Supreme Judicial Court that found colleges and universities have a limited responsibility to prevent a suicide when they know a student is at risk.
Now Beeler is arguing that high schools also have a special duty to protect students from harm.
“All too often it is a failure by school personnel to communicate with those who could prevent such deaths that contribute to them,’’ he said in the letter to the district.
State law caps compensation to $100,000 for negligence claims against state and local governments. Goyette says that cap is unreasonable and makes it difficult for families to find an attorney willing to take cases like hers.
She says her case is not about the money. She wants to hold the school accountable for what happened. And she wants the district to do more to help students deal with mental health issues.
“I don't want to see another family go through what this family has gone through,’’ she said. “I don't want to see another young life lost.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or use the Crisis Text Line by texting “Home” to 741741. More resources are available at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.
Jenifer McKim is a senior investigative reporter at the New England Center for Investigative reporting at WGBH News. NECIR interns Rachel Rock and Anastasia Lennon and Boston University journalism students Jackie Contreras and Mia Ping-Chieh Chen contributed to this report.