It is something no teachers or school administrators ever want to experience, but a reality that they must be prepared to confront: the death of a student.

And while most student deaths are from accidents or illness, in a recent federal study suicide was found to be the No. 3 cause of death among those 10 to 14 years old.

Schools all over the nation have been searching for ways to prevent it.

In an incident that gained international attention, last week the prestigious Shipley School, in the heart of the Main Line, was forced to come to grips with tragedy when the body of eighth grader Cayman Naib was found on the grounds of his Newtown Square home, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was to be honored at a memorial service Saturday.

While Shipley declined to comment for this article, the school's head, Steve Piltch, has been aggressive in communicating with parents and alumni regarding what steps the school has taken. He also has offered advice to parents, such as not forcing children to talk about the incident or other issues "until they are ready to do so."

Suicide has become a major concern among the nation's schools. In 2007, New Jersey became the first state to enact a law requiring all education staff to undergo suicide-prevention training. Now more than 20 states have similar requirements, and Pennsylvania plans to institute a program starting with the 2015-16 school year.

Tina Forsythe, a counselor who coordinates grief response in the Downingtown School District, said the district always tries to get as much information as it can about the circumstances to help pupils understand the reason behind a classmate's death.

"A loss to suicide may be more emotional to students," she said. Classmates may be wondering if they could have supported the student or may blame themselves for not seeing the signs.

"Communication is key," she said. School officials keep parents informed of plans. They have counselors attend the deceased student's classes, set up safe rooms for sessions with counselors, and reach out to the students' friends or social groups.

In the upper schools, students have some say in how to deal with an empty desk. Often the classroom configuration will be changed. For younger students, teachers and counselors consider art projects or other classwork to give to the parents of their deceased classmate, Forsythe said.

Downingtown also will contact neighboring schools where others might be aware of the death, given various activities, and faith-based groups, or other community-wide activities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 suicide was the third-leading cause of death for those 10 to 14 years old, with 306 youths taking their lives.

"The percentage of high school students who say they have considered suicide has continued to climb," said Pat Breux, program director for the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide in New Jersey.

Based on CDC findings, about 18 percent of all high school students have considered suicide, 12 percent have made actual plans, and 8 percent have attempted it, she said.

Said Breux: "That is a lot of kids."

Breux said the group's founders - Scott Fritz and Don Quigley - were friends who pushed for state-mandated training for suicide prevention in schools after they both lost teenage children to suicide.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention publishes recommendations for schools on what to do - and not do - should a student suicide occur.

It suggests treating a suicide the same as that of any other death and to avoid simplifying, glamorizing, or romanticizing the deceased student in death. Emphasize that students who take their own lives likely have struggled with depression or anxiety, and make sure help is available for any students who had mental- health issues or suicidal feelings.

The Methacton School District, in Montgomery County, has three suicide-prevention training sessions a year: one for school staff, and the others for the community, said Linda Ehmer, school counselor.

She said that among topics discussed are "typical" vs. "concerning" behaviors: an adolescent's withdrawing from family and spending more time with friends is "typical"; withdrawing from all social activity is "concerning."

If teens want more privacy, that is typical, she said. If they are becoming more secretive and hiding things, that is concerning. If they are moving from childlike into teen pursuits and adult types of activities, that is typical. A warning sign: if a teen lost interest in something he or she enjoyed and did not replace it with another activity, Ehmer said.

"We are trying to open the conversation," said Terri A. Erbacher, a school psychologist with the Delaware County Intermediate Unit who works at Monsignor Bonner and Archbishop Prendergast Catholic High School, in Upper Darby Township. They use SpeakUp!, a suicide- prevention program that brings parents and students together to discuss their feelings.

The teachers are encouraged to be proactive and let students know where they can find help, especially if they see a peer struggling.

"It is scary to ask someone who you see hurting if they are thinking of suicide," Erbacher said.

The circumstances that led to the death of Cayman Naib remain unclear. His parents have said he left the home about 6:30 p.m. March 4, hours before the region's worst snowstorm of the season, evidently after receiving a bad report from the teacher. Hundreds of volunteers became involved in the search.

That Friday, with the search intensifying, Shipley administrators began contacting students and parents. They convened assemblies at both the Middle and Upper Schools.

Piltch, head of the school, has written four letters to "Shipley families" that remain on the website.

"It is important not to force our students (your children) to talk about this (or anything else) unless and until they are ready to do so.

"In turn," he wrote, "you and we need to be extra cognizant of being there for them."

Lines of Support

For help, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255), http://www.


Also, Peter's Place - A Center for Grieving Children and Families is in the Radnor Financial Center in Radnor Township. It can be reached at 610-687-5150.


610-313-8111    @MariSchaefer