Late on a recent Friday afternoon, Cailin Daugherty heard the words every public-school educator dreads.
“I’m thinking of killing myself,” Daugherty said the student confided to her in private on school grounds.
The teenager, whose identity we are protecting because she is under 18, was a straight-A pupil who never appeared depressed, Daugherty said. The timing of the confession couldn’t have been worse for the teacher, though. Daugherty, who is in her first year at the Cleburne school district after working for several years in the Fort Worth school district, was on her way to pick up her three children after school, and it was now the weekend. The two exchanged numbers.
The next day, Daugherty texted her principal, notifying her of what had happened. The teacher then made a decision that resulted in the school district’s decision not to renew her contract. In violation of the school district’s policy prohibiting private electronic communication between teachers and students, Daugherty called the student that Saturday (with the permission of the teenager’s parents) to talk at length about the suicidal ideations.
Having fought through bouts of serious depression herself, Daugherty consoled the girl by describing her experiences. She detailed coping mechanisms that had helped her and offered general advice on mental health resources. By the end of the hour-long conversation, Daugherty believed the girl was in better spirits. That Monday, Daugherty described the situation to her principal. The following day, Daugherty was notified that her contract was under review because she had violated school policy. Two weeks later, the human resources department told Daugherty that her contract would not be renewed.
Daugherty admits to violating the school policy, but she stands by her decision.
If the girl had hurt herself that weekend, Daugherty said she “would have been fired and probably sued.”
The parents, she added, “are upset” about her contract cancellation.
The ordeal, she added, “makes me mad because I’m a good teacher. I’ve had parents even email my principal saying how glad they are that I am there.”
The teenager could not be reached for comment by press time.
Lisa Magers, spokesperson for the Cleburne school district, told me in an email that privacy laws restrict her from discussing the Daugherty case directly, but she did confirm the electronic communication policy while commenting on the district’s preferred course of action when a student confides suicidal thoughts to any school district employee.
“The recommended procedures for teachers and staff are to make immediate notification to the school counselor, who is trained and experienced in dealing with these situations,” she said. “We do not recommend teachers take matters such as this on themselves without having the specific training and certification. We do want our teachers to establish positive relationships and trust with their students and to be an approachable and trustworthy connection in times of personal crisis.”
Suicide, along with homicide and automobile accidents, regularly appear among the top causes of death among teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three years ago, suicide rates among teen girls reached a 40-year high. In the 15 years before that, suicide rates doubled among teen girls. The crisis has spurred a nationwide training program, Mental Health First Aid, that is administered locally by the mental health nonprofit MHMR of Tarrant County. The certification program is open to anyone and provides training on how to spot “potential warning signs and risk factors for depression, anxiety disorders, trauma, psychotic disorders, eating disorders, and substance use disorders,” according to MHMR’s website.
Additionally, MHMR partners with the Fort Worth school district and other public schools to provide the certification program, Youth Mental Health First Aid, to teachers and counselors for free. MHMR offers a 24-hour crisis hotline (817-335-3022 or 1-800-866-2465) that can also be reached via text at 817-335-3022.
While Daugherty knows that filing a grievance or even suing the school district are options, she has chosen to focus on her next career instead. She said she will continue to work with the physically and mentally disabled and distressed children through an equine therapy program she is developing. Through the use of three specially trained horses, she will introduce children coping with depression or learning disabilities to horses. As the kids groom, feed, and interact with the large animals, Daugherty will observe them and engage in constructive conversations, much like a therapist or counselor would. At the moment, Daugherty is finalizing efforts to form a nonprofit for the venture.
“Horses give back,” she said. “They are very therapeutic. They’ve helped me through hard times. I might as well use that to help other people.”
Already, one teenage girl is ready to sign up, Daugherty said. It was the one who confided in her initially.