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Sit-in over ex-student’s suicide called ‘disruption’

Updated: May 5, 2014 8:45AM



ST. JOHN — The principal of Lake Central High School is calling a sit-in students held over the suicide of one of its former students “a disruption” and “not the right way” to handle the situation.

Robin Tobias wrote in an email Wednesday night that was sent to parents that there’s “no easy solution when 200 kids decide to create a sit-in within the middle of the school in order to demonstrate a point of view, while making demands” and that he, too, was experiencing mixed emotions. The students had staged the sit-in over what they saw was the school’s lack of acknowledgement of the former student’s suicide last week.

Tobias said the students who participated in the sit-in could be perceived as promoting suicide as an option to solving one’s problems and recommended that students avail themselves of counseling services the school has set up for them. For that reason, the school adheres to a minimalist approach to addressing suicide publicly, Tobias wrote.

During the sit-in, one student was removed from the scene by police officers.

“There is a right and wrong way to solve a problem. A sit-in/open protest is not the right way,” Tobias said.

Tobias has not returned phone calls asking for comment Thursday.

A secretary answering the phone at the admonistration center Thursday afternoon said no administration officials were in the building to comment. She said she would absolutely not contact any of the officials on behalf of the press and ask them to respond to a request for comment.

A video taken of the protest and posted to the LiveLinks website shows a crowd of students gathered in an area on the first floor of the school’s new addition. A woman in the video is seen yelling at Tobias that the student was her son and that all they were asking for was a moment of silence over the intercom for him.

Tobias is heard telling the woman, “Ma’am, you’re not in charge here, I am.”

Tobias then tells the protesters to get out their student identification and told them he was “disappointed,” to which a protester replied, “We’re disappointed in you, too.”

Police officers are later shown dragging the student out of the area as the crowd cheered.

The student, Hunter Ernst, 18, of Schererville, was arrested for resisting arrest and possession of a knife on school property, St. John Police Chief Fred Frego said Thursday.

“What may have been lost is not the memory of a young man, or the emotions of our students, but the fact that the death was a suicide, and some students in an effort to preserve the memory of this young man are taking steps that other students could interpret as suicide glorification,” Tobias wrote. “Initiating steps for students to meet with their counselor will always remain important. While the suicide of a person is tragic, it is a greater tragedy to glorify this event.

“It is difficult to guide and protect students, helping them through their personal trauma if suicide is seen as a viable option to solve their problems or to get attention.”

A student, who asked not to be identified, said the student who died dropped out of Lake Central in February. When students approached the administration about recognizing the death in a moment of silence as it does for other students who have died, the student said they were told the school’s position is that it does not acknowledge suicide for fear it could result in “copycat” actions.

A group of students then proposed a sit-in after the school’s “D” lunch period Wednesday to convince the administration to change its mind, the student said. When the student walked into the cafeteria, there were two St. John police officers posted by one of the doors.

In his email, Tobias said that he had received confirmation of the former student’s suicide Monday and that he sent an email to his staff making clear there would be counseling services available to those who seemed like they needed them. He said he also visited each of the student’s teachers to make sure they were watching for kids who seemed upset.

But because he was no longer at Lake Central and the death was a suicide, they didn’t use the intercom to publicize his death.

Tobias also said that he was able to get the protesting students into an LGI room to continue the discussion, where he told them that he had already discussed the issue with the students who previously talked to him about the policy and that the administration had a plan to mourn the student outside of the school day.

The students who participated in the sit-in were dismissed from the building, and their teachers were instructed to mark them as absent, Tobias said.

Tobias said it seemed there were more students interested in missing class and causing a disruption and that he was disappointed more students saw the sit-in as the right solution instead of talking with an adult about their feelings.

“I am most disturbed by the number of students who admitted not knowing the dead young man, but still thought being a part of a sit-in was the right thing to do,“ Tobias said.

A secretary answering the phone at the administration center Thursday afternoon said no administration officials were in the building to comment. She said she would not reach out and contact any of the officials on behalf of the media and ask them to respond to a request for comment.



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