Two Montezuma-Cortez Middle School students died by suicide this weekend, and two high school students attempted suicide in the past week, shaking the neighboring communities of Towaoc and Cortez.
The two high school students are recovering in hospitals, Montezuma-Cortez Superintendent Lori Haukeness said Thursday.
“Anytime that we lose a student, that’s one too many students,” Haukeness told The Journal.
The two Middle School students were friends, Haukeness said, but it was not clear whether their deaths were related. While the two teenagers were enrolled in the middle school, they had not attended classes for some time, she said.
Haukeness confirmed Tuesday that one of the students was 15-year-old Jeit Redrock Height. According to his obituary, Height, who died Saturday, was a lifelong resident of Towaoc.
The other teenager who died was 14-year-old Andrew William Cuch Jr., also of Towaoc, said Amie Hammond, who works in the media department of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. According to Cuch’s obituary, he died Jan. 22 at Southwest Memorial Hospital.
A vigil for the two teenagers was held at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Towaoc Recreation Center. About 150 Towaoc residents attended, and the vigil’s organizers implored the crowd to “come together” and work for a better future for the tribe’s children.
During the sometimes emotional vigil, the grieving mother of Andrew William Cuch Jr. asked leaders where the support was when she needed it. She also thanked the organizers for holding the vigil.
In Cortez, school faculty rallied together to support students.
“We are deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of our two M-CMS students,” Middle School Principal Kate Ott told The Journal on Tuesday. “The faculty has rallied together to support students during this difficult time. We truly appreciate members of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe being at the school throughout the day today to offer support to students in need.”
Montezuma County Sheriff Steve Nowlin said the first attempted suicide occurred south of Cortez just after midnight Saturday. Friends of the high school student had found concerning notes and alerted law enforcement, who arrived on-scene shortly thereafter.
The teenager was taken to Southwest Memorial Hospital, then airlifted to a hospital in Denver, Nowlin said.
The school district was notified about the other suicide attempt Wednesday night, according to Haukeness.
Earlier this week, as reports of suicides filtered through Montezuma County, Nowlin emphasized he considered teenage death by suicide to be a rising public health issue in the county.
Last year in Montezuma County, 13 people, all age 18 or older, died by suicide, up from 11 in 2017 according to county Coroner George Deavers. In La Plata County, 13 people died by suicide in 2018, and 19 in 2017.
Nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for people between 15 and 24, after accidental injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Nowlin emphasized that the community has responded with positive action.
“There’s a lot more suicide training and counseling than we’ve ever had,” he said.
The RE-1 school district on Tuesday emailed a letter to the school community regarding the deaths. It urged families to speak with their children about their feelings.
“A young person’s death is always tragic, and a sudden loss like this can have a significant effect on surviving students, our school and our community,” Haukeness wrote in the letter. “It is important that we recognize this loss and offer help. This is a sensitive issue for young people and their families, and we suggest that you talk with your children about their feelings.”
She added that the middle and high schools had extra counselors on hand this week to speak with students regarding grief and loss.
“The well-being and safety of our students, as educators, are at the forefront of our concern,” Haukeness said. “Our heartfelt condolences to the students’ families.”
The need for suicide prevention efforts within Montezuma-Cortez schools is recognized. At the district’s board meeting last week, two youth representatives from the Piñon Project encouraged the school board to better implement Sources of Strength, an evidence-based program that focuses on social supports, such as family support, positive friends and mentors, that can help youths lead healthy lives.
“I feel like Sources of Strength is a really amazing program, not only for the schools,” said Dante Downey, one of the youth representatives who spoke. He added that the Piñon Project reached out to schools, who had been on board with strengthening the program.
Sarah Sticha, the former suicide prevention coordinator for the Piñon Project, also voiced support for the students’ efforts.
“Sources of Strength does not have to be a stand-alone program; it’s really easy to piggyback it,” Sticha said.
She highlighted the work the youth representatives have done in reaching out to the administration and emphasized the importance of personalizing the program to the community.
“We are not trying to be oppositional in this, but rather looking for support from the community as well as admin and the board in figuring out how to creatively make this program work for our community,” Sitcha said. “Because Montezuma County is really unique, right? And what it looks like in Grand Junction isn’t necessarily what it’s going to look like here.”
Board members agreed with the importance of suicide prevention, and Haukeness added that work was being done, especially in staff training.
“This really is a focus,” she said at the meeting.
In her email to families this week, Haukeness also emphasized the importance of families encouraging open dialogue with their children.
“It is also important to let young people know that it is OK to ask for help from an adult if they or someone they know is struggling with depression, anxiety, or thoughts of suicide,” Haukeness said.
Montezuma County residents struggling with depression, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts may call Axis Health System’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 970-247-5245 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255. Axis’ Montezuma County offices are at Cortez Integrated Healthcare, 691 E. Empire St.