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FOX 13 Investigates: Utah middle school rips out yearbook page dedicated to student who died by suicide

Posted at 9:53 PM, Jun 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 16:13:38-04

HOLLADAY, Utah — There are few topics more difficult to talk about than suicide, especially when it involves our children.

Health experts have found it is critical for school districts – and the media – to be especially responsible with the way these cases are handled, to ensure kids know there is hope and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

For the past month, the FOX 13 Investigates team has been asking mental health professionals how victims should be remembered and whether Utah schools are appropriately responding to student suicides.

Research shows a school’s response is especially important, as the steps taken after a suicide can either lead to suicide prevention if handled responsibly, or lead to greater risks if handled irresponsibly.

This story is part one of a two-part series, FOX 13 Investigates: Censoring Suicide.
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During the 2020-2021 school year, Bonneville Junior High School in Holladay made a careful but permanent decision that is drawing scrutiny from a victim’s family, her classmates, and mental health experts.

Addison Condie, the school’s student yearbook editor, noticed someone ripped out a page from each yearbook after its publication.

“It was physically ripped out. You can see in the book that there’s remnants of a page,” Addison said. “I was little confused. I was like – ‘That's weird?’ so I thought it was a mistake.”

It was not a mistake.

Granite School District confirmed school administrators intentionally removed the page, which depicted a photo of yearbook advisor Marlena Henry wearing a t-shirt to honor the life of a student who died by suicide in March.

The shirt read, “Stay gold, Marina Jensen.”

Marina was 14 years old.

“I’m disappointed that they could just so blatantly and effortlessly tear out a page,” Addison said. “I just wanted an explanation as to why.”

“That’s what they’re going to remember out of the yearbook,” said Addison’s father, Mike Condie. "It’s not going to be the writings on the page. It’s going to be the ripped-out page, and their mind’s automatically going to go to suicide.”

Ben Horsley, a spokesperson for Granite School District, said the school removed the page to avoid retraumatizing students.

Horsley initially stated the victim’s family agreed with the decision.

Marina's father, Luke Jensen, said he was not aware of his daughter’s memory being ripped from the yearbook until after being contacted by FOX 13.

“I think it’s just dishonorable,” Jensen said. “If you knew Marina at all, she wasn’t silent. She would stand on her principles no matter what, and she had a good moral compass – a solid moral compass. This is not how she would have wanted this to happen.”

Jensen sat at his kitchen table and cried while speaking with FOX 13, surrounded by photos of his daughter.

He had just experienced his first Father’s Day without Marina.

“She wanted to be a lawyer, to help people,” Jensen said. “She was captivating. She would make you want to talk to her... She was so very, very valuable and unique and special. You don’t think somebody that strong, and that mentally capable, and that loving and kind, has these deep deep things inside of them.”

Marina’s photo was never taken on school picture day, which means there was no mention of her enrollment published anywhere in the yearbook.

That’s why, prior to the photo of Ms. Henry’s t-shirt being ripped from the yearbook, Addison wanted to dedicate a full page to her classmate.

“I think suicide is a very – it's a tough subject to handle, especially for my age group,” Addison said. “Most people who do have suicidal thoughts don’t bring it up, and it’s very brave of them if they do.”

According to Addison, her goal was to start an important conversation about mental health, drawing more attention to the way Marina lived rather than the way she died.

Granite School District denied the request for an in-memoriam page.

“It was a positive way to memorialize her,” Addison argued. “It simply said her name or showed a picture of her.”

“I don’t understand why we’re not teaching life principles in school. I don’t understand that. Why silence that?” Jensen asked. “I think that’s the most important thing. Checking in more, having more conversation, just getting to the root of problems.”

Experts tell FOX 13 they agree.

Dr. Thea Gallagher, a clinical psychologist and professor at University of Pennsylvania, gives Granite School District credit for having mental health counselors on campus after Marina’s death.

Still, she said she does not like the idea of ripping a page from the yearbook.

“There has historically been a stigma about talking about symptoms,” Dr. Gallagher said. “The worst thing that can happen is that kids continue to isolate and don’t tell people how they’re feeling, and then they’re not going to get the help that they need.”

“Does it seem like perhaps this is just a case of the school district being overly cautious?” asked FOX 13 investigative reporter Adam Herbets. “Do you think it does more harm than good?”

“Absolutely,” Dr. Gallagher responded. “This is a person. This is a human... We still need an opportunity to celebrate and grieve their life.”

Horsley stated Granite School District was particularly concerned about suicide contagion, which could lead to “copycat” suicides.

"Granite School District works to adhere to state and national level mental health guidance and expertise when it comes to appropriate memorials and recognitions of students who have passed away," he wrote. "In this particular situation, a page with potentially harmful content was removed from this yearbook. We communicated to the community the rationale and the basis at that time. We will always work diligently to provide resources, help and assistance to students and individuals who may be struggling."

Horsley claimed the district asked the Utah Department of Health for guidance.

“I want to be clear, we don’t have a policy,” Horsley said. “They’re the mental health experts. We’re relying on their expertise when these questions come up.”

A spokesperson for the Utah Department of Health disputed Granite School District’s claims.

“When the school district says it relied on the Utah Department of Health to help make this decision, that’s not true?” Herbets asked.

“We were not involved,” said Jenny Johnson, a department spokesperson. “The Utah Department of Health has not been involved in any school-level decisions... those decisions are made by the school, at the school level.”

As such, the Utah Department of Health declined to comment on the specifics of the case.

Johnson instead referred FOX 13 to a resource that it sends school districts at the beginning of each school year, which lists best-practice guidelines on how to respond to a suicide.

“After a Suicide: A Toolkit for Schools” was jointly published by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, Education Development Center, and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The toolkit has received endorsements from additional groups.

According to the guidance, glamorizing or romanticizing the death of a student is in fact dangerous due to the risk of suicide contagion. Still, it states there are a number of healthy and appropriate ways to honor victims, including in the yearbook.

“The focus should be on mental health and/or suicide prevention,” the guidance states. “Underneath the picture it might say, ‘In your memory, we will work to erase the prejudice surrounding mental health problems and suicide.’”

“The guidelines certainly don’t encourage you to hide those deaths, but you have to treat them very sensitively,” Johnson added. “If it’s tradition for the school to have a page that’s dedicated to any student who dies during the school year, no matter the cause, then that should be applied across the board for all deaths... All student who have passed away need to be recognized. Not just some of them. Not just the kids who were popular, or that – you know – died from this cause versus that cause.”

Granite School District confirmed it previously published an in-memoriam page in the yearbook for a Bonneville Junior High School teacher who died from cancer.

The district has since abandoned the practice of providing in-memoriam pages to anyone, according to Horsley.

“We generally do not provide any sort of memorials in yearbooks,” Horsley said.

“That’s honoring a person’s legacy, and I don’t care what anybody says: My 14-year-old had one,” Jensen said. “This creates that dialogue. This creates a bridge and a pathway for maybe one other kid to say, ‘Dad, hey, I’m feeling kind of weird.’”

Marina is survived by two younger brothers. Jensen insists having conversations with his surviving children in the wake of his daughter’s death has been crucially beneficial.

“Randomly on one of the silent parts of the ride home, my oldest son said, ‘Dad this helped me. Dad, this helped me,’” Jensen said. “I think this needs to open up more dialogue about mental health.”

Jensen said he’s glad the school was willing to have those same important conversations with students in the days after Marina’s death, but he’s still confused as to why it never continued – the only physical memory of his daughter now being a ripped-out page.

“This is not the way to do it. Silence is not the way to do it,” Jensen said. “I don’t want anybody’s family to feel remotely close to how we feel. This has been a crippling loss.”

Ms. Henry is now under investigation and could face disciplinary action for wearing the t-shirt in her yearbook photo.

“That definitely seems extreme to me, because I have lost loved ones in my life,” said Dr. Gallagher. “It doesn’t matter what your loved one has died of. To be able to grieve and celebrate their life is an important part of being human and a very important part in the mental health process... To eliminate that process I would definitely say is actually harmful.”

FOX 13 has also learned, despite state recommendations, there are additional school districts in Utah that have not adopted a formal policy.

FOX 13 Investigates: Not all school districts comply with state law requiring suicide response program

“I do think that, had (Granite School District) had a policy in place, they wouldn’t have had to make that last-minute decision,” said Taryn Hiatt, the Utah area director of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “The photo that I’ve seen (of Ms. Henry) was in line. It was nothing that would have violated safe practice.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visiting suicidepreventionlifeline.org

If you prefer text messaging, simply send the word "HELLO" to 741-741 for free and confidential emotional support.

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