Imagine that you have a blessed life as a wife and the mother of three beautiful children. Imagine that you’re coming home from a trip to the grocery store after a long day at work with a container of your oldest son’s favorite ice cream. Then imagine the gut-wrenching horror of going into your bedroom and finding that son dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Imagine how your life would never again be the same.
This is the life of Sherri Hammersmith. On Tuesday, September 25, she spoke to an attentive audience of teens and staff at North Central High School about the life and tragic death of her 16 year old son Scott in April 2006. She goes out into local schools and talks about her experiences in hopes that she can help students to talk about their problems and get help, and to educate teens on speaking up if they find that a friend is struggling with emotional problems and thoughts of suicide..
She was the first speaker at the school’s Speak Up Day, a program that was brought to North Central by guidance counselor Diane Veres in conjunction with Tante Lovins from Four County Family Center and Kathy Bechstein of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy. This program was designed to educate students on suicide awareness and prevention. As part of this event, and for ongoing prevention and education, twelve students and all of the junior high and high school staff participated in a 3-hour training this summer on safeTALK so that they could learn the signs of those who are considering suicide, and how to talk to those students and get them help.
Few of Scott Hammersmith’s friends had any clue that he was struggling. His family had no idea.
Sherri began her talk by reading the suicide note that her son had left. The crowd fell silent, and you could have heard a pin drop.
Scott had been a sophomore at Defiance High School. He was an athlete, and during his school career had been involved in basketball and football. Baseball, however, was his true love and he aspired to be the next Chad Billingsley, a Defiance hometown hero who made it to baseball’s major league as a pitcher. Scott had set his standards high, and in his mind, nothing short of perfection would do.
He seemed like a well-adjusted, happy teen. He was, in the words of his mother, “the perfect child.” His death was a shock to his family and the community. He had confided in three friends and told them that he wasn’t feeling quite right and that he didn’t know what to do. They never said anything to the family or to school officials or any others who could help. They kept Scott’s secret. Sherri feels that they may have been afraid to tell.
Sherri told the audience that it was important that they tell someone if they have a friend who confides in them and says that they are considering hurting themselves or ending their lives. She said that they may lose that friendship, but that if they don’t act, they could lose that friend to death. “If you have any inkling,” she said, “you need to speak up.” Otherwise, they could find themselves standing at that friend’s grave.
Two weeks after her son’s death, the family found his journals. He had kept them hidden from his family. In them, he wrote of his friends and the pressure that he felt trying to be perfect. He put his turmoil and anger into poetry. He felt that he was never good enough. They discovered that he first began to write about killing himself around Christmas, a time during which, ironically, his mother felt lucky and blessed to have a happy life and a great family. Scott actually went through with it on April 20, 2006.
“My life stopped that day,” says Sherri. In the six years since that time, she and her husband, and the younger brother and sister that Scott left behind have received therapy. Life has gone on, but “it still seems like yesterday” that it happened. She cries daily.
She explained that she did not see any signs that he was struggling. He was “popular, very loved, a good kid, and intelligent.” She later realized that there were some issues that triggered his suicidal feelings. He was not accepted into a high school program for students interested in the field of marketing, he was not getting onto the baseball field to pitch as he wanted, and his girlfriend had recently broke up with him. These were normal things which teens go through all the time, but in his quest to be perfect, he was struck hard by these events. Had she known, she could have talked to him and she would have sought help for her son.
His last day seemed normal. “He went to school that day, went to his baseball game, then came home and shot himself. How do you do that? Nobody saw (that there was a problem).”
The North Central Schools hope that by bringing awareness to this issue and providing peer support through safeTALK that teen suicides can be prevented.
Students then broke up into small groups for discussion, and returned to hear a panel discussion on bullying and sexting presented by Williams County Prosecutor Katie Middleton, Pioneer Police Chief Tim Livengood, and North Central Principal Tim Rettig. Middleton began by explaining the definition of sexting, which Wikipedia describes as “the act of sending sexually explicit messages or photographs, primarily between mobile phones.” She noted that sending such messages or photographs of anyone under the age of 18 is illegal and a felony that carries a possible penalty of prison time. She explained to the teens that even receiving a nude picture of a minor on their phones was a felony, and that sending it on would make them a participant in criminal behavior. Anyone convicted of sexting would also be labeled by the courts as a sex offender.
Principal Rettig added that if students receive such a picture or video, that they should bring it to the attention of an adult immediately. If he receives such a complaint, then he would take a statement from the student, and contact law enforcement officials such as Chief of Police Tim Livengood. Rettig said that he is required to report any incidents. He also pointed out to students that as soon as a digital picture or text is out there on the internet, it is there forever. Even if something has been deleted, law enforcement can recover anything digital, and can also gain access to Facebook and Twitter accounts if there is reason to believe that there has been a criminal offense.
Rettig noted that he does not check on students’ social network accounts, but that he could become involved if, for example, a student was staying at home because she did not want to come to school due to cyber-bullying. He would be able to do this if he had a “reasonable suspicion” of sexting or bullying activity.
Livengood emphasized that “if you participate in or pass it on (sexting and/or cyber-bullying), you’ve participated in a crime.” He would then obtain a warrant to access the information. He added that, “if you don’t want others to see it, then don’t put it on your phone!”
Students then adjourned for related group activities, and then lunch at the baseball field. Principal Rettig grilled hamburgers and hot dogs for the students.
Following the presentations, three student peer group members explained what they learned by being a part of safeTALK. They said that they learned what do to if someone shows suicidal signs, and how to talk to them, and how to talk to an adult about the problem. Tessa Mewsome and Brittany Keller said that they both had friends who were struggling with feelings of wanting to end their pain. Brittany added that she realized from Hammersmith’s talk that “even though someone may appear to be okay, they might not be.” Tessa agreed, and said that teens should “pay attention to people whom you might not expect” would have problems. Nathan McBride agreed with the young ladies.
Speak Up Day and Sherri Hammersmith’s speech was described as “very powerful” by Kathy Bechstein of the Olweus Program at the Center for Child and Family Advocacy, a bullying prevention program. She said that the Center has used this program since 2006, and was offering it to all schools in northwest Ohio.
Students and staff at North Central were very lucky indeed to be able to participate in Speak Up Day, and if their reactions to the program are any indication, they are more aware of and prepared to prevent suicide in their school and community.