COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) – Cristen Baird wears her memories of the dead wrapped around her right wrist – brightly colored silicone bands belying their meaning – stacked 5 inches high on her forearm.
They carry the names of some of those she has loved and lost. Two names appear repeatedly – Devin Scott and Dylan Redwine, only two of the friends the 19-year-old has lost to suicide, shootings, illness or accident in the past six years.
Adolescence for Baird has proved not to be the carefree years she anticipated but a minefield of funerals, memorials and candlelight vigils.
There have been 116 children 17 or younger whose unexpected deaths have been investigated by the El Paso County Coroner’s Office since 2015. Fifteen were homicides, 39 died in various accidents (which could include anything from accidental asphyxia to car crashes), and 44 died by suicide. The remaining 18 deaths were ruled natural, undetermined or have causes still pending.
More than half of those youths were between the ages of 13 and 17.
The death of Marshall Mitschelen in May marked the 10th teenage friend Baird has lost since moving to Colorado Springs in the summer of 2007. She co-organized a balloon release in Mitschelen’s honor, but as with others before him, when she released the strings she was unable to relinquish the grief.
“It’s hard to make it as a teen right now,” she said the week after Mitschelen’s death, referring simultaneously to some of the motivations behind her friends’ deaths – bullying, violence, the struggle to belong – and also the sorrow of those forced to go on living without them.
She can’t decide whether the trauma has left her weak or made her stronger.
“You feel numb in a way,” Baird said. “You don’t really know what to think, you don’t really know what to say to people. You try to get better but something bad again knocks you down.”
Her memorial bands fulfill her promise to “never forget,” but they’re also shackles tying her to the grief she has yet to work through. She refuses to consider formal counseling – though she has attended a support group for five years – because she doesn’t want to talk about her “problems” and doesn’t trust that it would help.
That distrust is a growing trend among other young people, too, said Falcon District 49 psychologist and director of Community Care Kim Boyd. Death is becoming so common for some teens they consider it almost cliché to cry about, she said.
They’re desensitized, she said, they don’t want to talk about it, at least not for very long. They don’t want to “walk through a graveyard” of memorials leading into school. They don’t want to feel, period.
The number of deaths reviewed by the Colorado Child Fatality Prevention System is highest in El Paso County – 269 from 2009 through 2016. But when factored by population, the county’s rate of death per 100,000 teens for suicide, motor vehicle crashes or other firearms-related deaths is not among the top five in the state.
Still, the county’s youth suicide rate gained national attention in 2016. It has suffered a rash of youth homicides. And the county has lost numerous school teachers and administrators recently to car, bike and skiing accidents.
The number of school population-related deaths may not be statistically irregular – “I haven’t observed a significant increase beyond what our ever-increasing population couldn’t account for,” Coroner’s investigator Leon Kelly said – but the barrage is taking a toll.
Rather than acknowledge it, though, kids seem to be trying other tactics: deny, distance and avoid.
“Feeling is not something anyone wants to do anymore and I think that is bleeding down into our youth,” Boyd said. “To them, it’s just like, ‘Well, it’s just another thing that happened.’”
The first deathBaird was 14 when she first experienced loss.
It wasn’t the death of a grandparent or even someone elderly. It was Devin Scott, a 17-year-old DJ at Skate City, the roller rink that had come to be “like another home” for Baird, a refuge from the constant bullying she says she suffered at school.
The two talked often about how mean kids could be to each other. For Baird, the previous year had been “the worst year of my life.”
She hadn’t had much luck making friends at Sabin Middle School. Kids pushed her in the hallway or shoved her against the lockers, she said. They told her on social media to kill herself. “We already dug a grave for you,” one girl told her, “just show up and we’ll bury you alive.”
In gym, a girl yanked down Baird’s pants, including her underwear. She resorted to eating lunch in classrooms with teacher supervision or in the safety of a bathroom stall – “the only place I wasn’t getting bullied.”
But she felt safe at the skating rink among other self-proclaimed misfits. People dressed like her – edgy. Many had also been bullied, but strutting in to blaring hip-hop during a Friday spin night could make anyone feel cool.
You don’t have to be the star athlete at Skate City (and it’s relatively cheap entertainment, $5.50 a ticket), which is what facility manager Bill Mulhern thinks attracts “outsiders.”
“It gives a place to have identity where they might not otherwise,” Mulhern said.
It was in that comfort zone where Baird first vocalized a question that had been on her mind for a year: What if she did kill herself? It was directed at Scott, who she says scolded her, urging her to “try as hard as I could” to survive and be happy.
She knew little of his unhappiness.
On Aug. 6, 2012, Scott was reportedly in a scuffle with a person who threatened to fight him after school. A crowd of kids followed him home that day, hoping to watch. They stood outside his house taunting him, banging on the front door, jumping on top of his car and overturning a trash can in his driveway. He called his school counselor for help, then the police nonemergency line. No one came.
The next day, Scott hanged himself. Baird was crushed.
“I looked up to him,” Baird said. “When he did it, it made me feel like there’s not a lot of hope.”
Before she even had time to process the loss, there came another three months later.
A name in the newsBaird called Dylan Redwine “one of my closest best friends” and sometimes her boyfriend after he moved in across the street in 2012. All the neighborhood kids hung out together, but he and Baird were especially close.
When Redwine was required by a court order to visit his father near Durango for Thanksgiving that year, the teens promised to message each other through Facebook or texting until he was back.
Redwine was reported missing two days later.
“I instantly started crying, bawling, screaming,” Baird said. “We just kept hoping that we’d be able to find him alive, but I had people telling me he’s dead, just stop looking for him, just stop caring.”
Redwine’s remains were found that June. The death went unsolved until last summer when authorities arrested Dylan’s father, Mark Redwine, on suspicion of murder. Mark Redwine pleaded not guilty to the charge June 29 and is next scheduled for a pretrial hearing in November.
Again, Baird had little time to process the loss or grieve.
That December, another Skate City friend, Alyissa Garcia, 12, drowned.
Six months after that, Doherty High School classmate Jacob Crookston, 15, shot and killed himself in the bathroom at the start of the school day. She remembers his easy “Hi” in the hallway or occasional greeting hugs, friendly gestures that meant a lot.
Five friends’ deaths in three years would be a lot for any 15-year-old to process, so Baird didn’t. She refused to see a counselor at school or elsewhere, calling them “fake,” and feared “burdening” anyone else she might talk to.
“I don’t like to talk about my problems because it doesn’t make me feel good about myself,” Baird said. “Sometimes, yes, I wish I had a place to go to talk. I know people say one-on-one (counseling) is better, but I feel like it wouldn’t help too much. They would tell me what I already know.”
At her parents’ urging, Baird did begin attending a support group organized in honor of Devin Scott by Devin’s mother, Angel Bradley, and she continues to attend it five years later. Groups of five to 10, mainly girls now, gather each Tuesday to talk about their lives, vent and receive advice. “It helps a lot,” Baird said.
But it wasn’t enough at the time. Baird was depressed but didn’t know how to say it. She thought about telling her parents, but they were burdened by working multiple jobs.
“I knew there wasn’t really anything I could tell them that would be OK,” Baird said. “I didn’t know how to talk to them about suicide and when my friends died I didn’t know how to talk to them about stuff, and they didn’t know what to say to me.”
She started sneaking steak knives from the kitchen and cutting into her wrists. She described it as her attempt to drain the pain.
The self-mutilation would continue periodically over the next three years until one cut nearly killed her. Though Baird says she “wasn’t really trying” to end her life, one night in her junior year she sliced too deep, severing part of a blood vessel.
It required six staples to hold the more than inch-long gash together, the scar from which remains bright on her pale skin.
“Everything in my life that was happening, it just didn’t feel like I wanted to be here anymore,” Baird said. “(The deaths are) still really hard to deal with, especially when it just keeps happening.”
The losses mountHer senior year, Baird transferred to the smaller campus of Spring Studio for Academic Excellence, but that did little to insulate her from further loss.
In October 2017, two of her former Doherty High School friends, Alex Ainsworth, 18, and Nate Czajkowski, 16, were shot and killed in separate incidents just three days apart.
Czajkowski was an aspiring rap artist who went by the stage name “Nate Winters” and who Baird sometimes talked to at parties, including the night he died. But Ainsworth had been her go-to friend for group projects the previous two years. They dissected a shark together and were frequently scolded for talking during class.
Sometimes, when Ainsworth found her eating lunch alone at her locker he would stop to talk.
“Alex was always a person to ask if I was doing good,” Baird said.
Even graduation hasn’t separated Baird from loss. Harleigh Quinn Simpson, 16, a Skate City friend and former Doherty classmate who commiserated with Baird about bullying, died by suicide in February. A second Skate City friend, Tyrese Gayle, 17, also reportedly shot himself in March. An official cause of death has not been determined, but police said they are investigating the shooting as self-inflicted.
The 10th death in Baird’s short 19 years was Mitschelen, 17, who friends say was shot accidentally by another teen showing off a gun. Police are investigating the death as a homicide.
“All of these deaths, it adds up,” Baird said.
And those are just the teens with whom Baird had personal relationships. With 116 other unexpected or suspicious youth deaths across the county during the past three years, the potential that others may be similarly suffering is large.
Boyd describes the far-reaching ripple effect a single death can cause, spreading out in waves from the deceased to their family, friends, classmates, teachers, school, previous schools, community, friends from extracurricular activities, sometimes military connections, their siblings’ friends, schools and teachers.
“It just grows and grows,” Boyd said. “Sometimes people will say they don’t understand why people are so impacted by the loss of someone they didn’t even know. But that’s another loss and it has that kindling effect. Entire communities are impacted.”
She saw the impact last year after Falcon District 49 suffered multiple losses in rapid-fire succession. Kids “started to have feelings of being cursed,” she said.
“Who are we going to lose next?” they asked her.
But like Baird, those kids also don’t seem to be willing to open up about the trauma.
Turning the tide on suicideArea schools have tried to be proactive by enhancing counseling opportunities in the wake of crises. Suicide-prevention education has been boosted, which has worked to an extent. During the first four months of last year, the Coroner’s Office reported 10 youth suicides; this year, they’ve had two.
“I think that is a testament of schools’ and parents’ commitment to the issue,” Coroner’s Investigator Kelly said.
In partnership with the Youth Suicide Prevention Workgroup and El Paso County Public Health, county agencies have combined forces to develop action plans, distribute suicide-screening tools and eliminate the stigma often attached to seeking help.
“We’ve really turned the tide here with our joint effort,” Kelly said.
But it’s hard to get at all root causes that contribute to an unhealthy mental state.
A 2017 suicide prevention discussion, “Teen Think Tank,” involved 150 area youths. The participants described struggling with family problems, depression or a combination of issues. Sixty-five of them admitted to having suicidal thoughts, but less than half of those surveyed said they found the school’s resources for those issues helpful.
Most said they’d never use the Safe2Tell anonymous hotline, and nearly all ranked the school counselor as the last “trusted adult” they’d open up to, behind the school resource officer, a teacher or a coach.
Why? Teens said they feared potential repercussions, they lacked trust in strangers or believed that the resource wouldn’t help.
“That makes me sad,” Colorado Association of School Counselors Executive Director Matthew McClain said, “because that’s what we’re there for, to support the students.”
In McClain’s small Morgan County school district of about 3,000 students, kids seem to be more open to talking, partly because it’s a “close-knit community” and partly because they’ve had counselors working with youths since elementary school – “It’s not foreign to them.” The district also doesn’t typically have more than one death a year, the latest being a car crash that killed a well-liked student, he said.
But in larger schools, like in El Paso County, where students have been bombarded with deaths, it makes sense that there would be some resistance, McClain said.
“They might be at capacity,” McClain said. “They may say enough is enough, and I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to talk about it.”
That’s the wall Boyd keeps hitting.
Across five crisis events this year, District 49 counselors interacted with 350 students, a number Boyd considers low. Some kids say they don’t want to talk about death, she said, others argue there is “nothing they can do about it” or that “it doesn’t affect them” because they didn’t know the deceased.
“As soon as a counselor walks up, they clam up,” Boyd said of students. “We want to bring all this mental health into schools, but the kids are not wanting it.”
One suggestion: ‘Just listen’But counselors say they’re not giving up.
Boyd is seeking to train all school staff to recognize the signs of crisis so that youths can be helped by whomever they chose to confide in, and she wants to host additional student discussions.
McClain says more peer-to-peer support efforts have been effective in his district.
Kids sign banners of support for family or other schools dealing with loss, they send cookies or write notes of encouragement.
“High school students really rely on each other for processing, versus kids that are younger and want that adult intervention,” McClain said.
One student had a suggestion during the Teen Think Tank discussion: “Just listen, don’t always try to find a solution.”
Healing is a daily process for Baird. It’s slow, with many setbacks, but she’s making progress.
She’s been with her boyfriend for four years. She has a steady job. She has stopped cutting herself and attends her support group every week. She got a tattoo – a serene mountain scene stretching halfway down her left arm, which she says represents peacefulness.
She has no plans to stop wearing the memorial bands.
They are more than reminders of tragedy – they represent happy memories with friends who “made me have a good life.” They are also daily reminders of the battle she and others are still fighting to win.
“I love when people like to read them,” Baird said.
Without the bands, she said, people wouldn’t know.