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Local: Education

W.T. Woodson High School roiled by three student deaths this year

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Local,Virginia,Education,Rachel Baye,Fairfax County

W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax was rocked this week by its third student death of the year in what appears to be a suicide.

The 17-year-old junior was found lying on a parking deck at the Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale Campus on Tuesday night, according to Officer Don Gotthardt, a spokesman for the Fairfax County Police Department. No weapon was involved, and the student's car was found on a higher level of the deck, a sign that the student may have jumped.

The official cause of death will be determined later by the state medical examiner.

The tragedy is not the first for the high school's 1,900 students this year. On Aug. 4, before the school year had begun, a rising sophomore died unexpectedly. Just more than two months later, a 17-year-old senior was discovered in a local park having hanged himself.

Two years ago, the school was home to the high-profile suicide of a 15-year-old football player, who was suspended after buying synthetic marijuana and whose death raised concerns about the school system's disciplinary practices.

Teachers say they're worried that so many students are struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

"I just don't want it to be the new normal," said Beth Koby, who teaches 10th and 12th grade English at Woodson and who taught the most recent victim. "Being a teenager is hard. It's stressful. I just don't want [suicide] to be something that's in the forefront of kids' minds as an option."

Suicides in high school can act as a "contagion," according to Los Angeles psychologist Michael Peck, an expert in youth and teen suicide. When someone familiar commits suicide, a teen considering suicide is more likely to go through with it, Peck said. This is especially true when someone popular commits suicide. "That's why celebrity suicides have a great impact on adolescents," Peck said. "For the unhappy ones, this stirs up a cauldron of feelings in themselves."

This week's Woodson death came just days after a school-organized speaker shared with students his own experiences attempting suicide and tips on how to help friends who may be struggling with depression. Earlier in the year, the school showed a film on the same topic, teachers said.

Both events were part of the Signs of Suicide Prevention Program, a program used at a number of Fairfax County Public Schools in recent years, including Woodson, said John Torre, a spokesman for the school system. The system's bullying prevention program also includes depression screening and suicide prevention, he said.

Advanced Placement psychology and world history teacher Elva Card said she isn't sure what more the school could be doing to prevent future tragedies.

"People may be wondering how come there are so many suicides at Woodson," she said. "It's not because we don't try [to stop them]."

Staff writer Matt Connolly contributed to this report.

rbaye@washingtonexaminer.com

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