Students from five Woodstock, Ont., secondary schools are being encouraged to walk out of classes on Tuesday morning to protest what they believe is inaction by school boards after five young people killed themselves this year in the small southwestern Ontario city.
Mackenzie Gall, 16, a Grade 11 student at Huron Park Secondary School in Woodstock, said the walkout is designed not only to raise awareness about teen suicide but also to prompt the school boards to show more support to students.
"I just feel like students don't really have a say, which is why we planned the walkout," Gall said in an interview. "I do believe it has a lot to do with bullying, for sure, and not enough awareness and help in the school system."
In a Facebook post last Thursday, under the page "Student Walk Out," Gall said the walkout will send a "powerful message" to the school boards and the Canadian Mental Health Association that they need to take more action.
Gall said that means letting outside agencies into schools to help students, adding mental health to the secondary school curriculum, and not sending students to London, Ont., for mental health treatment. Instead, she wrote that crisis beds are needed in Woodstock.
"We have lost five of our peers since Jan. 1, and we aren't prepared to lose anymore," she wrote.
The students are expected to march to a fountain in front of the Woodstock Museum National Historic Site downtown after walking out of class.
Kathy Furlong, superintendent with the London District Catholic School Board, said the board is trying to find out why there have been a number of suicides in recent months.
"As far as why it's happening, at this point, we're not sure," she said.
Officials from the city's public, French and Catholic school boards say the boards are consulting experts in the fields of teen mental health, suicide and trauma and have been monitoring social media sites.
College Avenue Secondary School, on its Facebook page, has posted a letter to parents about the planned walkout. It said experts have told the school boards that large school gatherings present a risk for vulnerable students.
"They have advised us that assemblies and other large group gatherings of students should be avoided. Not only are they not effective ways of engaging the students, they can also be triggering for those students who are most vulnerable and can contribute to increased thoughts of suicide," it reads.
The letter says the school is asking a representative from the Canadian Centre for Threat Assessment and Trauma Response to work with a small number of officials on "next steps for the community" and to train a small group of professionals on how to engage the students.
Gail Evraire, a parent, created a Facebook group for young people to talk about their problems and express how adults can best help them cope. It's called Youth Suicide Prevention in Woodstock.
"They're telling details," she said of the group. "These kids have been through nightmares. I've had parents contact me and tell me their tears are streaming, reading these stories from kids."
The five secondary schools in Woodstock are College Avenue Secondary School; Ecole secondaire Notre Dame; Huron Park Secondary School; St. Mary's Catholic High School; and Woodstock Collegiate Institute.
According to Woodstock police, 36 people since the beginning of the year have expressed suicidal thoughts or attempted suicide in Oxford County, which includes Woodstock and seven neighbouring communities.