A second suicide in nine months has been committed by a student attending the Stanislaus Military Academy, located at the John B. Allard school site in Turlock.
Tyler Graves, 16, took his own life on Jan. 3 after a lengthy bout of bad choices, says his father, Darin Graves.
In April of last year Alexandria Flores, also 16, committed suicide after attending SMA for several months.
Unlike Flores’ family, who claim she was denied access to counseling at the school, Darin Graves does not directly blame SMA for Tyler Graves’ suicide. But he feels the school did nothing to help Tyler Graves turn his troubled young life around.
Darin Graves says that, to his knowledge, his son never asked for counseling, nor did the school ever offer him any.
SMA is a military-style high school that serves about 200 at-risk youth from Stanislaus County with both academic instruction and military drill training. It is operated by the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
The majority of students choose the school in preference to other alternative education routes after being dismissed from traditional schools. Tyler Graves had been kicked out of Pitman High School for bad grades, low attendance and disciplinary issues including fighting.
“A Time Bomb Waiting to Happen”
With a student population of troubled youth at SMA, Darin Graves says he wonders why there is no psychological evaluation or screening process when students elect to go there.
Even though a large percentage of students are foster youth, homeless, or come from broken homes, SCOE spokesperson Judy Leitz confirmed the school does not offer a psychological examination of incoming students.
The environment on the campus is intense, and students are often subjected to tough physical training in the name of discipline and character development. Students who are already emotionally disturbed could potentially have adverse mental reactions to the militaristic atmosphere, Darin Graves believes.
Students at SMA, many of whom have violent pasts, are not directly given conflict resolution, anger management instruction or self-esteem seminars. Instead, the school provides “character training,” in which staff, mainly drill instructors, provide character development primarily through physical discipline.
Leitz says the character development component of SMA includes conflict resolution and anger management that “should improve developing those skills.”
Darin Graves has another opinion.
“It is a crazy school with a bunch of crazy kids, and then they try to make them better by making them do push-ups?” Darin Graves said. “It’s a time bomb waiting to happen.”
“They need to better identify student problems and provide counseling, not yell at them. I wasn’t the perfect dad but I cared about my son, and that school doesn’t really care. I went there to check it out and I could just tell by the interactions between teachers and students that they don’t care. I wish he never went there.”
Following Flores’ suicide a grievance hearing was held between the California School Employees Association and SMA. During the hearing Destiney Alvarez, a Student Support Advocate, (which are similar to mental health counselors) was asked if any staff conversations occurred about prevention or counseling of students who had suicidal thoughts or where cutting themselves or having other major social, major emotional issues.
“Not that I’m aware of,” she replied.
Superintendent Yet to Make a Phone Call
Darin Graves says that neither administrators from SMA nor Stanislaus County Office of Education Superintendent Tom Changnon called to offer condolences to him or his family. Flores’ family said Changnon never called them either.
Darin Graves did say that Fred Berry, a former SMA student support advocate who is currently serving in another position, came to his son’s funeral with 20 to 30 students in uniform, and that students collected several hundred dollars to help pay for funeral expenses. Staff and students also signed a card.
SCOE claims that the SMA principal, along with at least nine other teachers or drill instructors, were at the funeral. They also state that Berry was not in attendance.
Leitz says the SMA school nurse called Tyler Graves’s stepmother and maternal grandmother to offer condolences.
“No One Bothered to Call Me”
Darin Graves questions how a school that is designed to help such a student population fails to provide students with regular, ongoing counseling visits with a certified support advocate or mental health professional in an attempt to identify potential mental health issues. Regularly ditching school is often a sign of a troubled youth.
“He missed 14 classes and no one bothered to call me. I ended up getting a letter in the mail and when I took it to the school they seemed to have no idea what was going on. I asked my son and he said he didn’t want to go because all they did was push-ups instead of actually learning anything,” said Darin Graves. “Shouldn’t someone have noticed he was missing all these classes?”
SMA has one academic counselor and one crisis counselor on staff. The American School Counselor Association recommends traditional schools have a counselor to student ratio of 250 to 1, though SMA is far from traditional.
Despite Flores’ suicide in April, school personnel appear to have no clear direction or protocol in dealing with troubled students.
In the same grievance hearing held following Flores’ suicide, Student Support Advocate Doloroes Pena-Nolazco, who has over 20 years of experience working with troubled youth, was asked if SMA had a protocol for when students ditch class.
“I don’t believe we have a set protocol,” Pena-Nolazco said. “At least none that I’m aware of.”
When the advocate was asked if parents are notified when a student cuts school she responded, “That I can’t say for sure if that happens or not.” She later testified that staff meetings never include protocol for dealing with students who ditch school.