Students at Standley Lake High School in Westminster, Colo., returned to school Wednesday, two days after yet another school tragedy in the metro Denver area. On Monday morning, witnesses say 16-year-old Vince Nett entered his school’s cafeteria about 7:15 a.m. and without a word, doused his body with lighter fluid and lit himself on fire. A custodian used a fire extinguisher to put out the blaze while dozens of screaming students fled the area. No other students were injured, but Nett suffered burns on 80 percent of his body and about 40 percent of the injuries were third-degree burns, according to Westminster Fire Department spokeswoman Diana Wilson. He remains in critical condition.
“We’re in high school!” sobbed classmate Shelley Chaves when interviewed by Fox 31 News. “And no life should end or even think about ending like this. It’s so wrong!”
Local news channels broadcast the all too familiar scene of a high school wrapped in police tape, teary student-parent reunions, and authorities scouring the grounds with bomb-detecting dogs. After the search turned up nothing, officials concluded the sophomore’s act was a suicide attempt and not an effort to threaten anyone at the school. The Denver Post reported Nett left a suicide note on his Facebook page stating he’d been planning a public death for years and it was “not someone’s fault.”
Instances of students using desperate means to deal with unhappiness are reaching epidemic proportions in Colorado’s middle and high schools. The state’s schoolteachers and administrators, custodians and cafeteria workers, need not only traditional job skills, but also crisis management training.
In 2013, teen suicide pacts and a school shooting turned some schools into mass catastrophe areas—and then into crisis recovery centers. At least three incidents have hit schools in the first few weeks of 2014. Last week, Columbine High School, where two students killed 14 people in 1999, went on high security alert after receiving a series of threatening phone calls; then Nett’s suicide attempt on Monday; and on Wednesday, Lewis-Palmer High School in Monument, a town just north of Colorado Springs, was in lockdown for several hours after a student brought a gun to school. The student was apprehended and no one was hurt.
Standley Lake High School is only 15 minutes away from the home of Greg Stier, founder and president of Dare 2 Share, a ministry dedicated to mobilizing teenagers to reach their peers with the hope of Christ. Stier says this generation’s problems are more “amplified” than ever before due to social media where “everybody and their brother and sister and cousin” can see a student’s self image problem or participate in cyber bullying.
But the two core challenges for teenagers have remained the same for centuries, he said. Students want security—Am I unconditionally loved?—and significance—What am I here for?
“Everything from gun control to school counseling to government intervention is a bandaid on a brain tumor,” Stier said. “Only Christ can heal the brain tumor, [because] true security is knowing you are unconditionally loved by the God that made you. When kids really get that, it gives them hope and purpose.”