One after another the Needham students took their lives.
First were the recent Needham High School graduate and the 13-year-old middle school student on the same day in November 2004. They were followed by the 17-year-old senior in October 2005. Then it was the junior in April 2006.
That's when "the community just really erupted," said Tom Denton, director of guidance for Needham Public Schools who spoke yesterday at a conference about suicide prevention at Simmons College. That's when the community created a suicide prevention coalition to help piece itself back together, he said.
Two years later, the community has changed in significant ways, said Denton, who is cochairman of the coalition and has also been in touch with community leaders in Nantucket and Wellesley High School, two other communities that have faced similarly high numbers of suicide cases among young people.
Students ask for support now, he said. Parents voice concerns about their children and their children's friends. When students are hospitalized for attempted suicide, it's no longer kept quiet.
"It's such a frightening and tragic event that isolating it from yourself feels safer," said Denton. Now, in Needham, there's "more understanding that this impacts everybody."
Denton shared the coalition's approach to suicide prevention with more than 100 mostly social workers at the conference, which also included speakers who talked about working with various at-risk groups, including gay and urban youths, the elderly, and returning veterans.
Ruth Dean, a professor of social work at Simmons and the event's organizer, said she reached out to some of the other hard-hit communities looking for speakers, but didn't have much luck. There's "a terror that it's going to continue" if communities speak out, she said.
That's not the case in Needham, said Alan Holmlund, director of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health's suicide prevention program. "What we're seeing is a community that has taken action in a very public and visible way."
Ideally, unaffected communities would follow Needham's lead, said Holmlund, who attended the Simmons conference. Still, "it takes so much effort [to change], and unfortunately the effort is usually in response to some tragedy."
Pat Cotter, mother of a recent Needham High School graduate who attended the conference at Simmons, remembers the tragedies well.
After Denton spoke, Cotter rose to thank him but didn't get very far before she began to cry. She remembers her son coming home from school one day and asking why his schoolmates wanted to kill themselves.
The coalition "did open up a wonderful dialogue for us in our house." said Cotter, a social worker and graduate of Simmons. "It's just a ton of losses," she said later. "It was just devastating. It was just really pretty awful."
But she has seen the positive effect the coalition has had on the community. "It's an issue that we can discuss now. I think it's a closer community."
After Denton spoke, Cotter saw him afterward in the hall. She grasped his hand and held it for a moment. "Thank you," she said. "Thank you."