Girl’s suicide stuns Britton campus

A 14-year-old Britton Middle School student committed suicide
Friday afternoon at the school. It was the third tragic death
involving a Morgan Hill School District student this year.
A 14-year-old Britton Middle School student committed suicide Friday afternoon at the school. It was the third tragic death involving a Morgan Hill School District student this year.

Authorities and police say the girl was in the midst of family problems and was on medication. She hung herself with extra-wide shoelaces from a bar in a restroom stall.

“We need to come together as a school family,” Britton Principal Jim McDonald said in a loudspeaker address broadcast Monday morning to all classrooms. “Your teachers, the counselors, all of us on staff, we love you very much.

“We will give you everything we have to help you get through this. And that’s for many days to come, because this isn’t something that just goes away after a day or two.”

The ninth-grader excused herself from her fifth-period math class to go to the restroom, McDonald said. When she did not return after five minutes, the teacher sent a student to look for her. The student did not find her, so the teacher left her class and went into the restroom. She noticed clothes on the floor of one of the stalls, but thought they belonged to one of the special-needs students, who use that bathroom for changing.

The teacher then called a campus student supervisor, alerting the front office that the student was missing. The campus student supervisor went into the restroom, noticed shoes on the floor without their laces and immediately called for help on the walkie-talkie.

The door of the stall was locked, so lead custodian Sylvia Ortega had to climb over the stall wall to open the door. Assistant Principal Cindy Hicks was the first administrator on the scene; McDonald was running across the campus to get to the portables.

When McDonald arrived, he used his pocket knife to cut the student down and begin CPR. Paramedics were called, and the campus was locked down.

“We kept the students in their rooms so they wouldn’t see anything and panic, and so there wouldn’t be a traffic flow problem with emergency officials needing to get around,” McDonald said. “As soon as we were able to get the paramedics on the way, we made an announcement that we needed everyone to stay put because there had been a medical emergency.”

Students waiting in their classrooms didn’t know what was happening.

“There was quite a bit of fear, I’m sure,” said McDonald. “Normally, a lockdown means an intruder or some kind of emergency. As soon as we could we let them know it was a medical emergency.”

The students were released at their regular time. They had not been told the emergency was a suicide.


School officials dismantled a “shrine” for the student early Monday, approximately an hour before school opened. McDonald said the school had received calls from parents wondering why.

“We want to honor and grieve for her, but we don’t build a shrine to suicide,” he said. “If other students having problems, maybe even students from other schools, see the shrine, see the outpouring of affection and attention, they may see suicide as a way of getting attention and love.

“We dismantled the shrine to prevent copycats. We have been advised by professionals that this is the best way to handle the situation.”

The other secondary schools, Martin Murphy Middle, Live Oak and Central highs, were on alert Monday, he said, as well as the elementaries.

McDonald said the decision not to have a shrine does not mean the school will not have a memorial of some sort for the girl.

“It’s not that we aren’t honoring her in our own way,” he said. “Of course, we will work with the family to decide what is appropriate. But this is not the day to make these decisions.”


The focus seemed to be on simply getting through the day Monday. The office was crowded with concerned parents and sad students, some crying openly, some seemingly attempting to hold back emotions. The constant ringing of the phones stopped only for a brief time, when McDonald, in his address to the school, asked for a moment of silence for the student.

Britton was teeming with personnel ready to help both students and staff deal with the situation. Besides School District counselors, there were principals from other campuses, including Barrett Elementary Principal Lisa Atlas and Paradise Valley Principal James Hamilton, as well as Martin Murphy Counselor Adrienne Medalie.

“We have a whole cadre of Community Solutions counselors, as well as several private therapists who have experience in this field,” McDonald said. “Fortunately, our counselors recently went to a training session on dealing with suicide.”

Counselors from the Center for Living with Dying were also at the school.

“It is important for parents to know that youth may not talk to them; but they will be talking to their peers, the school people and counselors,” said Lisa DeSilva, director of community resources for Community Solutions.

“Parents shouldn’t push it (talking about the suicide) too much, but let their kids know they are there to listen. Let their children guide the process. It’s hard to accept that sometimes there are no answers. You just have to respect their feelings. And they will have feelings whether they knew her or not.”


The student had been in counseling herself for a long period of time and was a peer counselor, a program which trains students to listen to their peers and help with problems.

“They meet after school, and they train them to talk to other kids about their problems,” said eighth-grader Emma Howard. “I was really scared when I heard it was someone in the Peer Helping group. I know some people in the group, and I was worried it was one of my friends. But even though I didn’t know her, it is so sad to me that she was helping other people but couldn’t help herself.”

Emma’s mother, Sharon Kay Howard, is a frequent volunteer at the school, and she was on campus this morning to help if she was needed.

“Overall, the thing that is so tragic is that it didn’t have to happen,” she said. “No matter how tough things get, this did not have to happen. Parents give their children the basics, all the love and support, but if a situation arises, if parents feel they don’t know how to handle it, they need to know they can reach out for help.”

McDonald said the student was bi-polar, a condition which shows itself in extreme highs and extreme lows in mood.

“Jamie was a very bright girl, very energetic and creative, with a lot of mood swings,” he said. “When she was up, she was very up, and when she was down, she was very down.”

McDonald said her creativity contributed to her high grades in ceramics and drama, and that she was the kind of student who “made herself known to you.”

“She was a magnetic person,” he said. “You just wanted to draw her close to you and tell her everything is going to be okay. She was bubbly, dramatic, with not a lot of middle ground. She was a sweet girl, and outgoing, certainly not a loner. She was very much a teenage girl.”


Apparently there were at least two prior suicide attempts, said Sgt. Troy Hoefling of the Morgan Hill Police Department; once with pills and one time an attempt to slit her wrists. She had been in counseling for a long time; and within the last week, Hoefling said, she had gone to live with a friend.

“At school, we had surrounded Jamie with a lot of her counselors,” McDonald said. “It’s not as if this came out of the blue, although no one knew she was contemplating suicide.”

Hoefling said the girl left a suicide note of sorts.

“These were personal journals that were hidden when we found them,” he said. “She was a very eloquent writer … She wrote in detail about her situation. She wrote: ‘If you’re reading this, it’s probably because I’m dead or attempted suicide.’”

Hoefling said the investigation into the incident is over, as far as the police department is concerned.

“We’re not investigating this as a homicide or suspicious death,” he said. “Normally, we really have to work at finding a reason. But the investigation reveals that this was clearly a suicide.”


Superintendent Carolyn McKennan said the Britton community is working together to help everyone through the difficult situation.

“Grief abounds at Britton right now, but the thing that rises above is the supportive and caring atmosphere,” she said. “Our staff, and not just the teachers but everyone involved with the school, has almost been overwhelmed with caring. Friday afternoon and over the weekend, we thought of everyone who might need to be supported and reached out, but we needn’t have bothered. People in the community were so very thoughtful.”

McDonald said Monday afternoon that he felt the school day had gone as well as could be expected.

“It was a sucessful day, under the circumstances, with the help of all the counselors and our staff,” he said. “The library (where many counselors were stationed) was quite full most of the day, and Room 3, where we had a special place for more emotional students. There were 20 or 30 students attending the memorial service this morning, and some of them chose to go back to class, while others chose to sit out on the lawn and socialize, just be teenagers.”

Assistant Superintended Claudette Beatty and Britton Counselor Karen Cyprus will talk with the counselors and staff and make recommendations for the remainder of the week, McDonald said.

McKennan, who spent some time on the Britton campus Monday, said she was pleased with the way the staff was handling the situation.

“I am so impressed with how the staff cared for their kids, and then cared for each other,” she said. “Their first concern this morning was for the kids. Walking around the campus, you would see teachers stopping to reach out to students and stopping to give each other a hug, a little comfort. Jim (McDonald) was extraordinary. Everyone really stepped up and did their best.”

McKennan said events such as this one can put things in perspective.

“Sometimes tragedies remind us what is really important about what we do,” she said. “It’s not the buildings, it’s not the programs, it is these young fragile budding adults.”

Services were Monday morning at Habing Family Funeral Home in Gilroy.

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