PRIOR LAKE, Minnesota, U.S.A. — After losing two freshmen to suicide and another to a fatal car wreck since school began last fall, the shaken high school student body in Prior Lake, Minnesota ended the year burdened with tragic memories.
“Obviously, students lost their friends. They were grieving. Death kind of blanketed the school, especially the freshmen class,” said Nancy VanHorne, the school social worker.
Superintendent Tom Westerhaus of the Prior Lake-Savage school district, last spring called it a time of “uncertainty and fear” for families in the district.
Westerhaus said he hoped that by the district moving forward, the families of the three dead boys as well others would find peace.
But peace seemed to be far out of reach for many when three deaths in one year drastically changed the atmosphere of the Prior Lake High School.
Nate Vanek, who would have been a freshman at the school last fall, died in a car accident at the end of summer vacation last year.
On the way back from a movie theater one evening, the car Vanek was in went off a curvy road. Others in the car were hospitalized and survived, but Vanek, who was not wearing a seat belt, was not one of them. He was thrown out of the car then got rolled over. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
According to 15-year-old Jesse McKee, Vanek was a very popular guy among his freshmen class and deeply missed. T-shirts with his last yearbook picture on them were sold to remember him by.
The overwhelming sense of grief wouldn’t have hit the school as hard if Vanek’s death was the only one that year.
But in March, another freshman, Brad Hoppe, committed suicide.
“He used one of his hunting shot guns,” said David Tusa, 15, a freshman.
Hoppe cut off the phone lines and took off his socks to try to pull the trigger with his toes. He put the rifle to the top of his mouth and shot himself.
But a quick death with little pain wasn’t how he left this world. Hoppe bled to death.
After Hoppe’s death, his fellow students made ribbons out of army camouflage fabric during lunch periods. They tied them around their wrists and pinned them onto backpacks to remind them of their classmate.
Just when the tears had almost stopped flowing – and when teachers thought emergency meetings were nearly over – tragedy struck the school again.
No one was ready for another suicide.
Two weeks after Hoppe’s death, Dan Krinke, another freshman, also took his own life.
“He got drunk and shot himself to death,” said David Tusa, 15.
Krinke locked himself in his brother’s room with a suicide note and died there.
Reluctant to glorify his death or otherwise promote suicide – and following the superintendent’s suggestion – his family kept the funeral private and asked that no special memorabilia be made in Krinke’s honor. They wanted his death taken seriously and to see an end to the tragedies.
Following Krinke’s suicide, teary-eyed faces and blank stares became the norm at school.
Neither Hoppe nor Krinke seemed to show any signs of depression or suicide to their classmates.
To David Tusa, Hoppe was “talkative” and “outgoing.”
Tusa said Hoppe “talked to anyone in school.”
Krinke “kind of had the same personality,” Tusa said.
McKee, who was friends with Krinke, said Krinke was “usually happy and hyper.”
No one seems to have noticed any signs of depression or suicidal behaviors, if there were any at all. To many of their classmates and friends, the suicides contradicted the boys’ regular personalities and characteristics.
“I was very shocked and saddened,” said McKee.
Shortly after the suicides, a speaker came to the high school and talked to the students about teen depression and suicide. Most freshmen skipped their classes that day, and teachers headed for more emergency meetings.
VanHorne said the losses took a toll on the student body and taxed the school’s coping abilities.
“We were capable, to an extent,” said VanHorne. “Three events in one year, any school would have trouble dealing with that.”
VanHorne said she asked herself, “What did I miss?”
Counselors, social workers, and teachers felt the heaviness of the responsibilities that their roles bring them, especially in the midst of such tragedies.
But in a school of more than 1,800 students, even the best social workers would have a hard time getting to know everyone.
Taking such tough matters personally can often be too much. VanHorne said sometimes she has to remind herself that it also is the school’s work, not only hers.
Now that the school year is over, the memory of these three lost freshmen boys will begin to fade for those who didn’t know them. That might be for the better – maybe remembrance of the dead should only go so far.
Maybe then, the suicides will be a thing of the past for those in the future of the school. However, for those of us who not only felt, but were a part of that tragic school year, accepting our memory of our three fellow students may be our road to peace.
Minha Lee is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.