Mystery: Deadly Lessons
They live in nice homes. They’re popular jocks. So why are the kids of Council Rock trying to kill themselves?
THERE WERE NO Christmas lights at the Glover house this past yuletide. Normally, Scotty Glover would have had the modest rancher off Manor Drive in Richboro dizzily festooned with lights. His dad, whom everybody calls Big Scott, says Scotty loved Christmas.
Inside, the house is a Polaroid of suburbia: The living room floor is being redone; a JVC big-screen TV sits in the family room. The door to Scotty’s room sits half-open, a light on inside. His mother, Tammy, uses his bed to pile up laundry. Even though Scotty no longer sleeps in this room, his stuff is still here. She’s not ready to clear it out yet.
“Do you mind smoke?” Big Scott says. He lights the first of what will be several Marlboro Reds. “Ask us anything.”
He is a big man, not so much in size as in presence: An ex-Marine, he’s loud and boisterous, with a no-bullshit demeanor and the sizable hands of a mechanic, hands that make a whip-cracking sound when he smacks his jeans for emphasis. Tammy is quieter, bespectacled, emanating the callused strength of a mother fighting to regain her footing. She’s wearing brown cowboy boots, which sometimes clop a little harder on the floor when she’s trying to convey a thought.
Big Scott and his son shared a love of auto racing. Scotty loved sprint cars — sort of soapbox-derby cars with working engines — and loved to race them. At one point, the Glovers contemplated moving to North Carolina, to escape Bucks County’s subdivisions and mall idealism, but mostly for the sake of Scotty’s racing passion.
On March 24th of last year, Tammy took Scotty out to buy a nice suit for a Sweet 16 he was invited to that night at Spring Mill Country Club, near Richboro. They found a suit — a retro-cut three-button number — and also bought some new t-shirts and a pair of Vans. Tammy thought Scotty would get a year’s wear out of that suit: After the Sweet 16, there was his junior prom the following week, his cousin’s graduation party in June, then his grandmother’s 80th birthday.
Scotty returned home from the party a little before 11. He wasn’t drunk or noticeably upset. He greeted his parents, then ambled into his bedroom to listen to music. Eventually he headed downstairs, where he liked to play his PS2 or watch a movie to wind down.
A couple of hours later, Tammy woke up on the couch in the family room, bleary-eyed. Scotty had left the light on in his room, no doubt had fallen asleep in there. She walked in to shut it off. He wasn’t there.
Then she remembered he’d gone downstairs to the finished basement. He must have fallen asleep downstairs. She walked gingerly down the steps.
“And he was hanging from an exposed beam in the ceiling,” Tammy says, her voice higher, as if a ghost has jumped inside her chest. “I started screaming.”
Big Scott had fallen asleep on the couch with his wife. He heard the screams and came charging down the steps. Scotty Glover’s parents frantically unhooked the noose, a strap that was part of his sprint car, and their son fell into their arms.
THE COUNCIL ROCK School District is known for both academic excellence and athletic achievement. It’s one of those districts with gold-star reps for producing the best and the brightest. The kids who go here are privileged, raised by parents who care — sometimes maybe too much — about quality education and the quality of life that education begets. The district is consistently well ranked statewide, thanks to its high teacher salaries and enviable student achievement rates. It’s competitive and large, usually graduating high-school classes that number above 1,000 district-wide.
By the 2002-’03 academic year, the student population had grown so big that the district’s high school split. The big stone building with ’70s-style architecture, located in Newtown, was renamed Council Rock North; a new, sleeker building two miles away was christened Council Rock South.
In the past five years, the two Council Rock schools have seen six student athletes — four of them wrestlers — attempt to kill themselves. Three of them, including Scotty Glover, succeeded. Some hung themselves; some used guns.
The suicides have torn Council Rock apart. No one seems prepared to call the deaths a cluster or contagion — the clinical term for a group of peers who hear about a suicide and then commit it themselves — but it’s hard to believe it’s not. Something dark and sinister is pervading the corridors of both North and South.
The sobering truth is that cloistered, affluent enclaves can’t protect themselves from the fact that sometimes kids, good kids, attempt to take their own lives in acts of selfish desperation. Many times, they succeed. The standing image we hold of the kid at risk of teen suicide — the disaffected loner from the trailer park, the abused kid from the inner city — couldn’t be further from the truth. There are no markers, per se — the seemingly well-adjusted, handsome quarterback from the top-flight high school is just as likely to take his own life as any other kid. This utter randomness, the roulette-wheel quality of student suicide, is both baffling and terrifying. Three years ago, Neshaminy School District saw four members of its 2006 class kill themselves; between 2000 and 2003, six teenagers from Cherry Hill took their own lives. Nobody knows why.
According to Council Rock’s teachers, there wasn’t a brooding misfit type among the kids who tried to kill themselves here. Some had problems at home, some had girl trouble, some apparently had undiagnosed depression. But any warning signs were, according to most of the people who dealt with these kids firsthand, unworthy of red-flagging as anything more than typical teenage angst. The only thing the kids appeared to have in common was that they were relentlessly … normal. Which left administrators, teachers, parents and students asking:
Why is this happening to us?
The funerals, memorial services, grieving parents, terrified students and hand-wringing teachers have taken a toll on superintendent Mark Klein, a gentle man with a church-ready haircut who engages in clipped, lawyerly conversations. He doesn’t want to talk about the suicides for myriad reasons — personal, administrative, ethical — and that’s understandable.
Instead, he points out Council Rock’s response: The school, like many others, adopted a “Yellow Ribbon” campaign, an in-school suicide awareness program designed to open up lines of communication — in other words, to try and get kids to stop trying to die.
Mental health experts will tell you why teens kill themselves: They get moody, they get lost, they can’t cope with their tiny worlds that are just too cruel. They can’t escape the morass of pain that, however temporary, however insignificant in terms of the long, productive lives they’ll eventually lead, causes them to choose to stop living. Violently. To make a statement. To leave a mark.
Here’s the problem with the Yellow Ribbon campaign.
“Suicide prevention is bullshit,” says Sam Rubenstein, a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Doylestown. In the nine years he’s been a therapist, Rubenstein has treated hundreds of teenagers and adults, but he specializes in adolescents. He says many of his patients are Council Rock kids who started seeing him after the deaths there. The students coming to him, he says, are frightening in their lack of grounding in life. He says their lives are so myopic that the consequences of their actions — such as death, presumably — are secondary. “To them,” he says, “suicide is the ultimate expression of a pain they’re feeling. It’s their idea of problem-solving. We now live in a culture where that type of emotional expression is a status symbol.”
Schools trying to prevent teen suicide face a bind: Push too hard, and kids clam up. Don’t look closely enough, and you miss something. When any young person commits suicide, a scary degree of hindsight follows: A forgotten mood swing, a deep conversation quickly glossed over, a change in behavior barely registered, all take on new weight, become if-we’d-only-paid-attention clues. “I ask myself every day,” Big Scott says. “What did I miss?”
Council Rock is doing its best to move on, to recuperate from the pain. But it’s still there, in the faces of the kids — those best and brightest, the popular kids with varsity jackets and plenty of options for prom dates and lots of places to go on Friday nights. Council Rock understands that it may never know why some kids end their lives. It’s a tough, disquieting reality to live with. The suicides, Rubenstein says, have “created something bigger than the school district.”
TOM VIVACQUA HAS been coaching wrestling at North for more than 20 years. At 46, he still has the bull shoulders and boxy-legged waddle of a guy who could throw an opponent to the ground and pin him. He’s a health teacher by trade, but more of a coach than an academic. He grew up in Levittown, a fact he’s proud of, maybe because it makes him tougher than a Council Rock guy, proof that the school district’s privileged pedigree hasn’t rubbed off. Students gravitate to him because he appears to be accessible, on their level in a way. Coach V can be trusted, they think. Coach V knows us. He’s the little Italian guy with the big laugh and the huge smile, who probably knows a lot of dirty jokes, who likely shotguns beers at the faculty party. When he wears his navy Council Rock sweatshirt with the frayed neck, his sweatpants and skullcap, you get the sense it’s the wardrobe he’s most comfortable in.
He says nothing in the world compares to going head-to-head on the mat, when it’s just you and your opponent. “Wrestling lets you know you’re alive,” he tells me, letting the last part of “alive” echo a little longer.
He’s coached wrestling for more than half his life. Coached a lot of kids — quirky kids, good kids, determined kids, bad kids, troubled kids. But before 2003, none of those kids were dying. Or trying to.
In five years, Vivacqua’s seen four of his wrestlers try to commit suicide. Two succeeded, two didn’t. On one occasion, in the spring of 2005, he arrived at St. Mary’s Hospital in Langhorne in the early morning to see a boy in the emergency room. He remembers leaning over this boy — this six-foot, square-jawed, brush-cut boy, a popular kid — now with tubes attached everywhere, his eyes closed. He grabbed the boy’s hand, and the boy squeezed back — hard. He survived.
Last March, Vivacqua got another call in the early morning hours. On the other end of his cell was a Northampton police dispatcher, a former wrestler who knew Coach V. The guy told him that Scott Glover, one of the boys on his team — another boy on his team — had just been rushed to St. Mary’s after attempting suicide.
Vivacqua popped out of bed, jumped into his car, his mind racing, his heart breaking, still too early to think “Not again,” but it was there, nonetheless, in his brain. He threaded his way through the emergency room and came upon Scotty’s friends, huddled, crying. Vivacqua walked into the boy’s hospital room, and something seemed familiar. Then it hit him: It was the same room as the boy two years before. Now it was Scotty, who wrestled at 152 pounds, a kid he’d known for years, one of his leaders, with the tubes in him, eyes closed.
Tammy Glover was leaning over the bed, red-eyed and scared, waiting for her son to wake up. Vivacqua went to approach the bedside. Big Scott sized him up and erupted:
“What the hell is going on, Tom? What the hell is going on?!”
Tom Vivacqua didn’t have an answer for that. Nobody does.
At Scotty’s funeral, moved to St. Vincent de Paul in Richboro because the Glovers’ church, Advent Lutheran, couldn’t handle the busloads of kids who were coming, Vivacqua spoke to the hundreds in attendance. He doesn’t usually cry — he’s not built that way — but on that chilly day, he did. He cried, and through the tears scanned the crowd of sobbing, shell-shocked kids, some of whom were his current wrestlers, dressed in suits, their funeral best, and he said, “Scotty was a great kid, but he made a mistake. This is not the way to do it. Let’s not do this again.” He was authoritative and forceful in the way he said it. He thought that got through.
Let’s not do this again.
Yet early in the 2007-’08 school year — during Council Rock’s Suicide Prevention Week — Vivacqua’s cell phone rang again. Another one of his wrestlers had tried to hang himself. The school plunged back into panic. Vivacqua was beside himself. “I feel helpless,” he told me soon after. “And now I’m just numb.” After Scotty Glover’s death, Vivacqua found himself the object of some finger-pointing — was he pushing his kids too hard? Was he missing telltale signs? Was his highly regarded program ignoring the fragile emotions of its athletes just to put players on the mat? In interviews with me, the administration rose to Vivacqua’s defense, pointing out that if you condemn the wrestling program, you have to look at other sports as well. Will you start questioning the football coaches because some of their players are in therapy? Does the boys’ volleyball team become the center of scrutiny because one of its members committed suicide?
Tom Vivacqua wonders, though, whether a switch was flipped back in 2003, when the first of his wrestlers killed himself. “Most of the guys I have now were in junior high when that happened,” he says. “They looked up to him. He was a god.”
The second attempted suicide, in the spring of 2005, was the same story: outgoing, extremely popular jock who, although troubled, seemed an unlikely candidate for self-destruction. Then came Scotty. When I first spoke to Vivacqua last April, just a short time after Scotty’s death, he was still reeling. Even though it was our first conversation, he unloaded, and spent half of the phone call just yelling into the receiver, almost unaware that somebody was on the other end.
By the time I meet him, almost a year later, for beers at the Friends Bar and Grill in Newtown, he’s more reserved, but still puzzled by how to feel, how to act, what to say. He admits to being the type of guy who “blocks things out.” He doesn’t dwell on feelings. Some of the in-school counselors have suggested he talk to somebody, but he’s not there yet. He’s dealing with the losses, the sadness, in his own way. For now, after all of it, after the latest incident in the fall, he says, again, that he’s just numb.
“What are the smart people saying?” Vivacqua asks me, sipping a beer, hoping for somebody — anybody — to figure this all out, to tell him what to do before he has to endure another phone call.
Let’s not do this again.
DEPRESSION ISN’T NECESSARILY the gateway to suicide. Roxanne Kennedy, a Langhorne-based licensed clinical social worker who’s been seeing the Glovers, says only five percent of those who are clinically depressed actually take their own lives. She says most of the time, suicide comes out of nowhere, and no real, objective science can explain why some people kill themselves and some don’t. What the school needs to focus on, she says, is the post-vention phase of things — how those who are left deal with the aftermath.
Rubenstein says that one of the biggest problems in the wake of all this death is the way these kids are memorialized: the t-shirts, the LiveStrong bracelets, the songs of remembrance written by students, the scholarships, the endless tears and palpable melancholy permeating the hallways.
“Let’s not forget that this was a totally selfish act that did damage to a lot of people,” he says. But if the kids who are killing themselves are the popular ones, the ones who seem to have it all in the small-world axis of high-school society, what does that mean for the ones who don’t? In the end, that’s perhaps the most frightening question to arise out of the Council Rock suicides. “If I was a kid on the edge and I saw the way these kids were treated, that would clinch it for me,” Rubenstein says.
The Glovers know it’s unconventional for them to be so willing to discuss their son’s death. But they want to talk about what happened because they want to help. That’s the goal. They want their heartbreak, their frustration, their anguish, to be witnessed, observed, because they want kids to understand just how paralyzing living in their constant state of emptiness is. To know that some days, Big Scott can’t even walk past the basement door, let alone go downstairs. There are times, he says, he can still hear Scotty in the house: “It’s like he’s right there.” He and Tammy want to get past their son’s death, to move on. After all of the meetings and support groups, Big Scott says the one thing he knows is that he doesn’t want to end up like the parents who — eight or 10 years after a child’s suicide — still relive it like it happened yesterday.
They want kids to know there’s nothing glamorous about what Scotty did. Nobody dies this way a hero. Nobody leaves behind admirers. Nobody is Kurt Cobain. “You’ll end up in a garbage bag in the backyard,” Tammy says sternly. They’ll tell their story to anybody: Here’s our pain. Take it, absorb it. See Scotty’s empty room. Look at the pictures of his sprint car. Look at him with his buddies, smiling, happy. Look at the pictures on his wall. That’s what he left behind, mementos on their bookshelves that sit, lifeless, forever reminders that their son took his own life. His legacy, for as long as they live, will be the fact that he’s no longer there. “One kid,” they each told me, separately. “If we can prevent one kid from doing this, it will be worth it.”
Scotty left a note. As open as they are about their son’s death, Big Scott and Tammy don’t share the note. It’s too personal, too sacred. They say it explains very little about why their son killed himself, but like any good love letter, it says goodbye to them in the most personal, profound way possible. If that’s all they have left, that’s what they’ll keep. “Scotty’s weakest link was his heart,” Big Scott says, lighting another cigarette as he looks off into the kitchen in search of another memory, another ghost, another rationalization for what happened. He repeats what he’s already said to me twice tonight: “What did I miss?”