How High School Journalists Covered Classmates’ Suicides In Grand Junction

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Photo: Grand Junction J-Day mpf
Sutton Casey, center, is faculty adviser for Grand Junction High School's Orange and Black newspaper. Shannon Clark, a senior at the school, is the paper's co-editor. The Orange and Black covered two student suicides last year. They spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner at the Colorado Student Media Association's annual J-Day in Fort Collins.

When two students committed suicide at Grand Junction High School last year, staffers at the school's newspaper struggled with their personal feelings -- and with how to cover the deaths.

"It was definitely hard to cover," said Shannon Clark, then a reporter and now the co-editor of the school's Orange and Black newspaper. She was assigned to cover the first suicide because she didn't know the student as well as some of her classmates did. "It was very hard to write because you had to be very careful about what you would write and how it would come off to his family and his friends," Clark said.

The newspapers editors and faculty adviser Sutton Casey met with the school's psychologist and other administrators to decide how to cover the story. "We determined that ... September was suicide awareness month and so we wrote the story in that vein," Casey said. "It was not going to mention his name, not mention the specific incident but provide students with information about mental health issues and places that they could get assistance."

Clark said the school psychologist warned that identifying the student and writing at length about him could create a "butterfly effect" and trigger other students to consider suicide. "If they see a student being shown in the light and being almost famous ... and now they have all these people like 'look at how great this person was,' students who are mentally ill can take that another way and say if I commit suicide then this can happen to me also and I can become sort of famous." Clark went on to cover mental health issues and a school district social media campaign called #whatadultsshouldknow that asked students to share their thoughts and feelings about the suicides.

Clark and Casey spoke to Colorado Matters about their coverage of the issue at the Colorado Student Media Association's annual J-Day, a conference attended by about 1,300 student journalists at Colorado State University earlier this month. We spoke to other students there about how and why they do journalism in an era when the profession's credibility is under fire:

Vivianna Denittis, senior, staffer at the Arapahoe High School Herald in Littleton.

"I want to be a journalist, or I am a journalist, because I want people to read our articles and see the passion we have for sharing information. My famous article for my school was on when teens know they are able to have sex ... I felt with our developing minds we really need to be able to know when we're ready to make that decision for ourselves."

Connor Lyford, senior and co-editor of Elevate Magazine, Regis Jesuit High School, Aurora

Journalism is "a way to walk in other people's shoes, or even trade shoes. I feel like when I'm interviewing someone I have to trade places with them and feel what they're feeling. It gives me a greater understanding of diversity. It gives me a greater understanding of a world I'm not part of."

Sam Norris, freshman, Eaglecrest High School in Centennial, who hopes to join the school's yearbook staff:

He hopes to cover racism: "I think just because I see so much of it every day, and so much in school. It's something I'm really passionate about and I feel like journalism is a good way for me to help put an end to it in some aspect."