Channeling Grief Into Kindness

The loss of a teenage son to suicide leaves a superintendent passionate about raising awareness of mental health issues
BY MARK L. ADLER/School Administrator, August 2017

Ralston, Neb., Superintendent Mark Adler and his family, including son Reid.
The knot in your stomach never goes away when you try to make sense of something that bears no sense. The tentacles of grief stretch far and wide into places you would never expect. My family, the Ralston Public Schools and our full community were devastated by the senseless loss of a caring and popular 15-year-old freshman at Ralston High School about 18 months ago.

The freshman was my son Reid. My wife Joni discovered him dead in our home’s basement on Jan. 7, 2016. Reid had taken his own life sometime during the night.

I’ve been the superintendent in Ralston, Neb., a diverse school district with 3,400 students in metropolitan Omaha, for five years and a public school educator for 27 years. Despite working all those years with thousands of students, no professional or personal challenge could begin to prepare me for such a sudden, devastating loss.

A Decision Regretted
Reid was popular at Ralston High School. He was a good student, smart, funny, athletic and involved in school activities. He was the kind of student you wanted in your school. He helped those around him to be better. He stood for things that were good. Most of all, Reid had the most kind and caring heart. Often, he made it his mission to cheer up fellow students, or even a staff member, who might be having a bad day.

Reid included as many people as possible in social events outside of school. He did not see differences. He just saw people as they are and he cared for them. Reid was the student who spoke out and stood up for others who would be targeted for bullying and harassment in the locker room and around school.

But Reid was not perfect. During 8th grade in middle school, Reid took a photo of his midsection without clothes on. He shared this inappropriate image with a girl who subsequently used it against him. Reid knew what he did was wrong, but he already had hit send on the photo, and he couldn’t get it back.

From that time on, the girl held this embarrassing image over Reid’s head. She threatened that if he did not do what she wanted, she would share the photo on social media to make his life miserable. She knew Reid was a popular student and his father was superintendent — things that would make such a disclosure damaging not only to Reid but also to his family and possibly the entire community.

In December, the month before he died, there were signs Reid was struggling, and he did reach out for help. He sent a note to Joni admitting, at times, he didn’t want to live. He admitted to watching videos about suicide. Each video, Reid explained, suggested telling someone about these thoughts and to seek help. Joni and I immediately took Reid to counseling and surrounded him with love. We reminded him how much we loved him and how special he was. The visits to the counselor provided hope that things were going well and Reid was looking to the future.

A Worst Nightmare
On Jan. 6, 2016, the girl held true to her promise. She shared the image on a website called Omaha Purge, a site intended solely to tear people down. Reid quickly learned his worst nightmare had come true. Sometime between 8 p.m. and 7:20 a.m. the next day, Reid took his own life by suffocation in our basement. Reid was the victim of cyberbullying, intimidation and manipulation.

On the eve of his death, Reid had shared with multiple friends that he was going to kill himself, that he was an embarrassment to his school and his family. When friends challenged Reid about those words, he said he was kidding and things would be fine. Unfortunately, later that evening when his mind was racing about the negative consequences to come, Reid faced his deepest fears alone. He made a permanent decision to solve a temporary situation.

As days and months pass, the grief and heartache linger. Our family, our schools and our community still are trying to make sense out of something that will never make sense. The “would haves,” “should haves” and “wish we could haves” continue to surface. Friends of Reid’s live with the question “why didn’t we reach out that terrible night and have someone check on Reid?” Joni and I struggle ongoingly with why we didn’t know about the situation, why Reid didn’t let us in on his struggles so we could help. We live with dreams for Reid that will never be realized.

As the two-year anniversary of Reid’s death approaches, Joni and I and our two daughters struggle with how to move on, defining our new normal without our son and brother. Jade, 20, is a second-year cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and Kamille is an 8th-grade student at Ralston Middle School. As a family, with a strong faith, we navigate each day.

Because I serve as superintendent in a metropolitan area, our story and journey with grief are public. We decided we needed to speak out about teen bullying and suicide. Four months after Reid’s death, Joni and I began to seek opportunities to detail the journey we now walk. The principal message we try to share is this: Spread hope and kindness with everyone you meet.

Since then, we’ve reached more than 13,000 students, staff, parents and community members.

Courage to Act
Suicide and mental illness are growing at an alarming rate across our nation. In Nebraska, suicide is the leading cause of death among children 10 to 14 years old and the second leading cause among those 15 to 25. Yet suicide remains a topic many people shy away from talking about, concerned about planting ideas in the minds of impressionable young people. The statistics tell us the thoughts already are there. That prompts my wife and me to speak passionately with others so no other family feels the pain we endure.

As professionals and caring adults, we must arm our young people with specifics on how to prevent this. Never before have educators and school leaders been more important in helping our young people navigate the challenges facing them. Joni and I talk about recruiting an army of students, parents, professional educators and community members to understand and recognize the signs of mental illness and to act if someone is talking about self-harm or suicide. We all must be responsible to report concerning behavior because it could save the life of a loved one.

In a K-12 community, all educators and especially those in leadership must have the courage to address suicide and prevention, while continuing to eliminate the bullying and harassment that arise in our schools. Our students and communities look to us for leadership in these and other important areas.

A Kindness Campaign

Students’ bracelets worn in memory of Reid Adler and to promote kind acts among one another.

Moving forward, our family is working hard to make a positive difference. Joni and I are now speaking publicly at least once a week. We’ve addressed dozens of audiences of college and high school students, parents and community members, an instructional technology conference and a juvenile services task force. We served as the keynote presenters at last year’s American Spirit Summit. We are mission-bound to make kindness an action verb for everyone. Through social media campaigns, the distribution of #bekind bracelets and window clings and our public engagements, we are trying to make a positive impact on others.

Most importantly, we established the Reid Adler Memorial Kindness Scholarship in honor of the caring heart our son possessed. The scholarship is based upon kindness and asks applicants to develop a “pay it forward” project that our family will fund, in addition to supporting the graduating students’ postsecondary education. (One of the first recipients started a Reading for Reid book drive. Another launched a Circle of Friends autism support group.) Reid paid it forward every day in the way he lived. We hope we can remember him fondly through our actions and make a positive difference. #bekind 
Mark Adler is superintendent of the Ralston Public Schools in Ralston, Neb. E-mail: Twitter: @drmadler

Additional Resources
The Center for Mental Health in Schools and Student/Learning Supports at UCLA suggests several informational resources on cyberbullying in its online clearinghouse.

» The Bullying Workbook for Teens: Activities to Help You Deal with Social Aggression and Cyberbullying Workbook Edition, New Harbinger Publications

» “Cyberbullying Among Students” 

» Federal government’s bullying website has a section on cyberbullying

» Making Your Secondary School E‑safe: Whole School Cyberbullying and E‑safety Strategies for Meeting Ofsted Requirements, Jessica Kingsley Publishers

The co-directors of the center are Howard Adelman and Linda Taylor, both affiliated with the department of psychology at UCLA.