Town tries to unravel causes of youth suicides

Published: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 2:41 a.m.
BRANFORD - Best known as a gathering point for cave diving enthusiasts from around the world, this little town on the banks of the Suwannee River gained national attention last week as the place where three middle school boys apparently took their own lives for no obvious reason.
"We can't afford to lose another child," said Suwannee County School Superintendent Walter Boatwright. "We want it to stop now."
The deaths - two in November and a third on Wednesday afternoon - have dominated conversations in Branford, a town of about 700 on the south end of Suwannee County.
"Why? That is the question. Why is this happening here?" said Shirley Clark, the public library manager and vice president of the town council. "I'm not sure of the answer, but I do know that because this is a small town, each one of these children had some kind of a connection to everyone else here. This has affected the entire community."
Branford is so small that the middle and high school students share the same campus; so small each grade has an enrollment of only about 60 children. When news of the most recent death of an adolescent boy began circulating Wednesday, area clergy canceled their plans for Thursday and Friday. They went to school to help counselors with mourning, confused or angry students.
"We set space aside and many of the children went right up to their pastors for comfort," Boatwright said. "None of us has all the answers but we can be there for the students and that has been important, too."
Boatwright said the district is bringing in professional assistance to help school staff respond to student needs.
"This is a speciality that none of our staff has been trained to deal with," Boatwright said. "In our teaching training, this may have been something that was mentioned, but not really gone into in depth. What we need is help for both the short term and the long term and we have arranged for that."
When school resumes on Tuesday following the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, specialists will be in the area working with parents, the community, faculty members and school staff in sessions that are being planned this weekend.
Additional attention will be given to suicide prevention during the annual in-service training day for the school districts in a few weeks.
"What we knew and what we have been told by the people we have called on to help us is that we don't want to sensationalize or memorialize these students' deaths," Boatwright said. "That can draw positive attention and become attractive to imitate. What we are working on now is how to convey to our students the permanent, the reality, the severity of this (suicide)."

The victims

The three cases share similarities.
All three victims were white, attended Branford Middle High School and lived with their families. Their bodies were found hanging inside their own homes by family members. Suwannee County Sheriff's investigators videotaped each scene and have pieced together the last days and hours of each teenager's life.
The first to die was 12-year-old Randolph Allen Patrick Hosier. On Nov. 8, he was found by his brother hanging by an electric power cord wrapped around his neck. Family members told investigators the cord had been used previously for a remodeling project.
Hosier's mother held him while his stepfather cut the cord from around his neck and the brother ran across the street to call for help from a neighbor's phone.
On Nov. 20, James "Jimmy" McCoy, 14, was found by his mother hanging by a cord around his neck in his bedroom closet.
His death came two days after his mother and stepfather banned him from watching television or using the computer for a couple of days because he had failed to get up to go to school.
On Wednesday, Tevin Dwayne Touchton, 12, was found inside his bedroom by his sister as he was hanging from a belt.
On his return from school the day he died, he saw his mother's car being repossessed and then was put on restrictions for nine weeks for having an F grade on his report card.

Looking for causes

In an effort to dispel rumors, officials have said there were no obvious indications that any of the boys died of autoerotic asphyxiation, and there has not been a rash of similar suicides in neighboring communities or counties.
Investigators are still looking into the reasons behind this latest death.
Suwannee County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Ron Colvin said residents calling about the investigation "have become alarmed over what is happening."
Colvin said investigators are researching if there is any connection between the deaths and Web sites that promote autoerotic asphyxiation. They had not found one as of this weekend.
But Tevin Touchton's mother said her son had recently gone to a Web site that promotes the behavior.
Colvin said parents should look for signs of bruising or marks around their children's necks that might indicate they have engaged in activity such as choking themselves until they pass out.
Both Colvin and Marshall Knudson, director of the Alachua County Crisis Center, said the most important step for parents to take is to pay attention to their children and talk to them about the situation that has occurred in Suwannee County.
"I've had people call me to ask me what are the signs and what are the symptoms and what to do," Knudson said. "Let's be monitoring our kids and figuring out what they're doing."
Parents should take a proactive stance with their kids in talking about the situation.
"It's not a secret," Knudson said. Trying to make it one can give the behavior "a power unto itself," he said, instead of communicating that it's dangerous.

Suicide statistics

If all three cases are confirmed suicides, Suwannee County will have surpassed national statistics on youth suicides, Knudson said.
About 10 suicides occur per 100,000 people per year among 15 to 24-year-olds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Knudson said. The number drops to 1 per 100,000 people annually for the age group 5 to 14.
"The numbers I've heard are clearly out of line, so it's understandable that it would be so frightening to that community," Knudson said.
"Suicide is frightening to most people to begin with, but when it comes to youth suicide, I think it is doubly frightening. When you are talking about small communities where people have a lot of knowledge of one another, it makes it more frightening," he said. "I think that's what that community is trying to deal with."

Cluster suicides?

One of the questions that has come up in the community is whether these are cluster suicides.
These types of suicides, also called copycat, are a series of suicides - often involving youths - linked in their timing and geography.
Cluster suicides may be more common among teenagers or young adults because of their susceptibility to peer pressure.
Knudson said anyone who needs information about suicide prevention or wants to discuss these incidents can call 1-800-SUICIDE.
Clark, who has managed the Branford library for 16 years and is a grandmother, said she hopes that parents do not overreact to the possibility of an Internet connection with the suicides.
"I don't believe in censoring, but parents do need to know what their children are reading and seeing on the Internet just like they monitor what their children see on television," Clark said.
Clark and Boatwright had the same suggestions for parents - talking and listening to their children when they speak.
"Nobody has all the answers, but we all have the ability to listen to our children so that they know we care about them," Boatwright said.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or Lise Fisher can be reached at 374-5092 or

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