BOULDER, Colorado—Even among a student body known for its quirky individualists, the 16-year-old’s habit of going to school in costume made clear he was someone who refused to be labeled.
So it would be especially unfair for him to be defined by a single act, among his last before he killed himself in September. With a few clicks on a keyboard, the Boulder Preparatory High School student created what he called the “4th Reich’s Official Group Chat’’ on Facebook, unleashing a grotesque stream of hate speech and threats against blacks and Jews.
A Boulder Police Department investigation determined that none of the chat group’s members—a dozen students from Boulder Prep, where the 16-year-old was in his second year, and other area schools—posed a credible threat to others. The police report included the assessment that the teen had killed himself “to show his allegiance to the Natzi [sic] party and the killing of Jewish people.’’
The Nazi “allegiance’’ line was widely quoted by national and international media including Reuters, the U.K.’s Guardian and the New York Daily News that took up the story after it was first covered by local media.
The idea baffles Lili Adeli, who runs Boulder Prep, an alternative school of about 150 students. She had never heard the teen express such virulent bigotry. In addition, she said in an interview, “his family is Jewish. And then his being bisexual is also contrary to the Nazi ethos.’’
Adeli did not name the teen out of respect for his family and their request for privacy. His relatives did not respond to requests for comment.
“For them to just pin it on his ‘Nazi allegiance’ seemed strange and a lot of his friends were very upset by that simplification,’’ Adeli said “I don’t know where they got that. It certainly wasn’t our interpretation from anything we read.’’
The police report included a transcript of the Facebook group chat that includes no references to suicide as a means to express extremism. Boulder Police spokeswoman Shannon Cordingly said the officer who investigated the Facebook page based the “allegiance’’ comment on a summary of information from conversations and interviews, but she did not elaborate further. The Boulder County Coroner’s report on the suicide does not mention the “4th Reich’’ discussion. Instead, the coroner referred without elaboration to reports of the teen’s depression, suicidal thoughts, and “recent life stressors.’’
One reason experts stress the complexity is to dissuade anyone, such as a teen who might recognize his or her own nihilism in Facebook chatter, from seeing suicide as an easy answer. The phenomenon of one teen’s suicide following another is well established, if not entirely understood. Another young man who had dropped out of Boulder Prep had died by suicide over the summer, Adeli said.
Adeli said the student who died in September was open about his sexuality and bullying he had faced at another school had been part of the reason he came to Boulder Prep. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention links bullying to an increased risk of suicide.)
Concern that he was struggling with grief after the death of his father in a March accident had led Adeli to approach his mother and urge the teen to seek therapy. He resisted.
Adeli’s experience with troubled students leads her to conclude that starting the Facebook group may have been an attempt to ask for help.
“When students engage in antisocial behavior, it’s often because of underlying psychological issues,’’ she said.
Experts stress that someone who is suicidal may not be thinking rationally.
“Suicide is an act to relieve psychological and emotional pain, most often associated with depression or another mental health condition,’’ said Doreen Marshall, a psychologist who is vice president of programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “The vast majority of people who are suicidal do not engage in hateful or violent acts leading up to their death, but rather, may erroneously believe that others would be better off without them in the world.”
Marshall would not comment specifically on the Boulder or any case.
Adeli said she took the Facebook hate speech seriously.
The Boulder police report on the Facebook group includes a transcript of exchanges that opens with the teen who died saying: “Welcome to the 4th Reich’s Official Group Chat’’ and saying the mission was to “recruit as many members to our cause as possible.’’ Because the names of participants who are minors have been redacted, it is difficult to say who is responsible for which post. But the chat group’s creator does not appear to have written the more incendiary comments. Instead, it’s as if he raised the crossing guard, then just stepped back to watch the train wreck.
Posts included derogatory references to blacks and Jews and calls for them to be “put down’’ and lynched.
Some posts were stark. “Death to all Jews and niggers’’ or simply “White power’’ with a trio of exclamation points. Another was a dark rhyme:
“You can hang Jews on trees, shoot them right in the knees. Gas as many as you please.’’
A Jewish student who had been threatened in posts had shown them to her on his cell phone moments before Adeli got a call informing her of the suicide. Her first response was to the death, informing her staff and students closest to the teen who died, canceling classes when she realized the effect the news was having on the broader community, tracking students she believed were vulnerable. It was a few days before Adeli realized the chat group had been started by the suicidal teen.
Five Boulder Prep students who took part in the chat group were expelled. Some told police and local media they saw the chat group as nothing more than a joke. Adeli offered each the chance to return if he or she agreed to a lengthy reconciliation process that included publicly acknowledging the pain their words caused. As of late October, only one had taken up the offer.
The name Boulder Prep may bring to mind an elite institution set on a venerable, ivy-covered campus. But Adeli’s charter school was founded by a juvenile court magistrate, public defender, and probation officer who all believed young people caught up in the justice system needed an alternative to traditional high schools. Not all the students it now serves had brushes with the law. It accepts those who have been expelled from other schools. Adeli said, her affection obvious, that her school is “a community of goofballs, outliers.’’
After outgrowing the conference room at the county courthouse where classes were first held in 1996, the school moved to a converted warehouse in a neighborhood of offices and light industry north of central Boulder’s quaint Victorian homes and the University of Colorado’s main campus.
On an unseasonably warm autumn day a month after the suicide, three teen boys tossed a football on a tiny triangle of grass outside Boulder Prep. In the lobby, a student picked out the Star Wars theme song on an upright piano in the lobby. A girl curled up on a worn, overstuffed leather sofa next to the glass doors at the entrance, watched a video on mobile as dramatic music leaked from her ear buds. A maxim attributed to Confucius was painted in bright colors on the wall opposite her sofa:
“Our glory is not in falling but in rising every time we fall.’’
The teen, Adeli said, would come through those glass doors one day dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase, another going for a hip wizard look with a fake beard, staff, and sunglasses. When he did wear a typical teen’s jeans and T-shirt, he might accessorize with a red bathrobe. On his Facebook page (separate from the 4th Reich posts) he posed with a martini glass in a white tuxedo and black bow tie, looking more goofy than sophisticated.
Adeli said she talked about the teen’s playful fashion sense at his graveside memorial service held in early October, saying he showed other students how to feel good about who they were and be unconcerned about others’ judgment. She also mentioned that despite losing his father, he kept his grades up, earning A-pluses on the midterm exams he took shortly before he died.
“This kid still showed up every day and took care of business,’’ she said.
Many students were among the nearly 100 people gathered for the graveside ceremony of their peer, Adeli said. Students lit sparklers at the end as they remembered his whole life, not just his final moments, with love.
Adeli said she and her staff have taken taken a course designed to help anyone recognize and respond to signs of distress offered by the U.S. arm of the international group known as Mental Health First Aid. Adeli said she had tried in the past to arrange courses for students, and regretted that she had been unable to.
“We absolutely think it’s critical for the students to get trained and recognize mental health struggles in their friends,’’ she said. “They’re first responders more than anyone else. They know what’s going on with other kids.’’
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is among the top two causes of death for two groups of young Americans, those between the ages of 10 and 14 and between the ages of 15 and 24. The CDC adds, citing a national study of teens in grades 7–12, that lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offers a “tool kit’’ for educators that includes a suggested script for informing students of a classmate’s death. The script stresses suicide “is usually caused by a mental disorder such as depression, which can prevent a person from thinking clearly about his or her problems and how to solve them.’’
It continues: “One thing is certain: There are treatments that can help.’’
The foundation also provides resources parents would find useful, such as a video by one of the researchers it has funded about how to talk to troubled young people.
Doreen Marshall, a psychologist who is the foundation’s vice president of programs, said understanding the nuances of suicide could save lives. Marshall would not comment specifically on the Boulder or any case.
Sue Klebold, who helped review the foundation’s suicide tool kit for schools, said she finds reason for optimism in what she sees as growing awareness that there are no easy explanations for suicide, and increasing understanding among young people of the importance of recognizing when they or one of their peers may need help.
Before Klebold’s son Dylan and his friend Eric Harris shot and killed 13 schoolmates and then took their own lives at nearby Columbine High School in 1999, she worked with students living with disabilities. Since the massacre, she has worked to raise awareness about teen suicide and mental health.
“I believe that every parent, every teacher, everybody should have some kind of training in how to talk to somebody who’s in crisis,’’ she told The Daily Beast. “Anyone can have a suicidal episode. We must always be alert to the fact that someone we love could be hurting. And that alone should change the way we interact and listen.’’
Those looking for help for themselves or someone else can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).