The Cluster Conundrum: Copycat Teen Deaths in Lake Forest

Research into the mysterious phenomenon of copycat suicides could help explain the recent deaths of three Lake Forest teens who stepped in front of speeding trains

A bike and foot path frequented by students parallels the Metra train tracks in Lake Forest.
A bike and foot path frequented by students parallels the Metra train tracks in Lake Forest.
 

At that time of year—early January—darkness beats back the first signs of dawn at the brick and shingle rail station in Kenosha. But inside the 6:17 Metra train bound for Chicago, lights blaze like hearth fires as the double-decker cars nudge away from the platform. The few passengers aboard at that lonely hour dot the train’s upper and lower berths, settling in with newspapers and laptops for the 60-mile ride. With each stop—Winthrop Harbor, Zion, Waukegan, North Chicago, Great Lakes, Lake Bluff—more people get on, slump into seats, sip coffee, and drift off to the lullaby of softly clacking wheels.

The morning of January 9, 2012, a Monday, was no different. The usual landmarks—the forests and fields; the golf courses and country clubs; the parks and houses, big and bigger—spooled by. Just past Lake Bluff, as the red-and-white-striped snout of the train entered Lake Forest, passengers looking to the east could catch a glimpse of one of the town’s notable buildings: Lake Forest High School, its stately façade visible through a skein of branches that spread like skeleton fingers.

Within a minute or so, the train’s two engineers slowed and then paused at the Lake Forest station to take on passengers. It was now 6:54. The train resumed its journey, collecting speed, rumbling past the town’s tony shops and offices toward Fort Sheridan, its next stop.

Less than a mile away, at the intersection of Western Avenue and Ryan Place, a car full of Lake Forest High students stopped as the warning gates swung down. The first-period bell was still an hour off, so there was no reason to rush, and they watched the silver train approach, its tiny headlight growing larger as it sped toward the crossing, horn blaring at intervals.

Suddenly they saw a teenager who was walking nearby drop his backpack. He ducked under the gate and sprinted onto the tracks. In an instant he had placed himself in the path of the oncoming train.

It takes the length of 18 football fields for a train traveling at 55 miles an hour to come to a stop. By the time the engineers caught sight of the boy, their slam on the brakes was too late. The engine struck him full on. His body flew some 75 feet.

Horrified, the students in the car immediately called 911. By some miracle, the teen was still alive. Paramedics rushed him to Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, but he died shortly afterward. Within days, the Lake County coroner would rule that Farid Hussain, a well-liked, seemingly happy 15-year-old sophomore at Lake Forest High, had committed suicide.

The school and the community were deeply shocked. School officials did all the right things: They expressed their condolences to the boy’s family and announced that social workers and counselors would be on call for students in need.

A few weeks later, another 15-year-old—a popular, mop-haired boy named William Laskero-Teskoski—was hit and killed by a Metra train. The incident occurred on February 28, on the same Metra line, at virtually the same time, just a little bit north of where Farid Hussain had died. A few weeks after that, on March 24, a third Lake Forest High student, 18-year-old Edward Schutt, was hit by a Metra train. He died at night—around 10:30 p.m.—on the same tracks near the high school.

Of the three cases, only the first was officially ruled a suicide. But Lake Forest police, having ruled out both accident and foul play, made it clear that they believed all three deaths were intentional. Town residents—baffled and confused after the first two deaths—were now gripped by an almost primal sense of anguish, bewilderment, and fear.

Tragically, teens killing themselves around the same time in the same way isn’t as rare as you might think. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among Americans aged 10 to 24, and these so-called cluster suicides account for an estimated 5 percent of the deaths, according to a classic 1993 study by Philip Hazell, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Castle, Australia. Scientific research into the phenomenon, though still in the early stages, might help answer some of the questions bedeviling grief-stricken Lake Foresters: Is this just a tragic coincidence? Is there something wrong with our community? And the most awful question that a parent, a teacher, or a friend can ask: Was there something I could have done to prevent it?

* * *

 

Photograph: Carlos Javier Ortiz

 

Lake Forest High School
Lake Forest High School
 

If façades and surface sheen decided these things, Lake Forest would be the last place to find such deep unhappiness. With its spectacular multimillion-dollar mansions mingling with tree-lined avenues of lovely, tidy, smaller homes, it is the quintessential North Shore town: moneyed, mannered, gorgeous.

In the early 20th century, the Armours, the McCormicks, and other titans of industry and finance in Chicago built estates there. The Onwentsia Club, still a playground for the socially prominent, once hosted polo matches, steeplechases, and hunts in addition to golf championships. F. Scott Fitzgerald based The Great Gatsby’s Daisy on Ginevra King, the Lake Forest resident who was his college crush, and he recalled the city as a kind of paradise. “Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world,” he wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter. “Maybe it was.”

But affluence—Lake Forest’s median household income of $137,000 is nearly three times the national average—can come with costs. “It is a very unusual community,” says a longtime resident whose son and daughter both graduated from Lake Forest High. “There’s a definite sort of Darwinian thing about going to high school in Lake Forest that’s sort of a microcosm of the city as a whole. It’s a great place for a certain group of people. There are kids who are very successful, fit in, work well, or at least cope. And then there’s a very small number who don’t.”

One Lake Forest mother who graduated from the school and sent her daughters there agrees. “Some kids, all they talk about is getting into the right college, doing the right thing, and how that is the end-all of high school,” she says. “You had to get into the best college or your life was over.”

The students themselves acknowledge the unique burdens that a community and school with particularly high expectations can impose. “This is probably one of the best public schools in the state,” says John Kurzydlo, a senior. “And I know the community has a lot to do with that—making the bar really high. It gets to some kids. But it’s just part of living in this community.”

Another student, posting on a Facebook page where classmates had aired deeply personal concerns over the suicides, related her own blunt assessment: “People are so judgmental in this school and THAT’S why people are having problems,” she wrote. “Money won’t stop this problem. Acceptance will.”

Is there something about Lake Forest in particular—or affluent communities in general—that fosters suicide clusters? Something, perhaps, about the intense pressure to succeed mixed with the kind of chilly family dynamics seen in the 1980 Oscar-winning film Ordinary People (which tells the story of an upper-middle-class Lake Forest teen who tries to kill himself after losing his brother in a boating accident)?

If you were to look at media coverage, you might think so. In recent years, upscale locales from Palo Alto, California, to Monmouth County, New Jersey, to the Chicago suburb of Barrington have been hit by cluster suicides, some eerily similar to the Lake Forest tragedies in both timing and method.

In Palo Alto, for example, where incomes are nearly as high as those in Lake Forest, five teens from the same high school took their lives over a two-year period from 2008 to 2010—all by jumping in front of commuter trains. In Monmouth, one of the wealthiest counties in the country, nine young men from the same high school committed suicide over a three-year period from 2007 to 2010—six on train tracks. In the same time span, Barrington has had five self-inflicted teen deaths.

The current crisis in Lake Forest isn’t even that city’s first experience with cluster suicides. One of the leading groups providing counseling and services to Lake Forest kids—the Committee Representing Our Young Adults, or CROYA—was established more than 30 years ago to deal with, among other things, a rash of teen suicides in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff. Those deaths occurred around the same time that ten suburbs along the North Shore faced a stunning 28 teen suicides over a 17-month period, a circumstance that prompted both the Chicago Tribune and Time to dub the area the Suicide Belt.

But statistics show no correlation between the prevalence of suicide clusters and the wealth of the area in which they happen. “From our research, there is no such thing as a ‘suicide town’ or ‘suicide school,’ ” says Madelyn Gould, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Columbia University who has spent much of her career studying suicide clusters. “It’s the affluent communities that catch our eye because we think, How could this be happening here when this kid has everything?”

* * *

 

Photograph: Carlos Javier Ortiz

 

The phenomenon of cluster suicides was first noticed back in the 18th century. In 1774, the German writer Goethe published a novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, that concluded with the suicide of the title character. An international sensation, the book touched off a series of copycats. First, young men aped the story’s protagonist by dressing in yellow pants and blue jackets. Next, also like the main character, they began to shoot themselves, some with the book open to the page describing Werther’s suicide.

Back then, there were no sociologists or psychologists to study such things. More than a century later, one of the fathers of sociology, the Frenchman Émile Durkheim, wrote an influential 1897 book called Le Suicide that considered the idea that suicide could be contagious. Considered it—and rejected it. With a few exceptions, the subject went unexplored for nearly a century more.

In the early 1970s, however, David Phillips, then a young assistant professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, decided to check out his hunch that there was something to the idea of “suicide contagion” after all. His methodology was simple: He gathered headlines about suicides that had appeared in American and British newspapers from 1947 to 1968. Then he analyzed the change in suicide rates in the papers’ publication areas after those stories hit newsstands.

Phillips discovered a spike in suicide rates following the headlines. The more publicity, the higher the rates (the largest spike in his study—12 percent—occurred after the 1962 suicide of Marilyn Monroe). He even coined a term for this phenomenon: the Werther effect.

Phillips’s work helped spark new interest in the topic, inspiring researchers at such schools as Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh to do their own digging. One of them was Gould. In the early 1980s, after a series of five self-inflicted deaths in New York’s Westchester County, she analyzed 53 cases across the country in which suicides clustered in one geographic area in a short time span.

She discovered what other researchers were also learning: While most suicides were older white men, clusters were almost exclusively composed of teens and young adults. In fact, “suicide modeling is two to four times higher among 15- to 19-year-olds than among other age groups,” Gould says.

The next task was to figure out what it was about teenagers that made them so vulnerable. One factor was pretty obvious: “They’re at a stage when the peer group becomes the most influential group to them,” says Gould.

But there’s far more to cluster suicides than just the teenage tendency to imitate, as neuroscientists were beginning to discover. Research was revealing that the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that deals with inhibiting impulsive behavior, continues to develop until people are well into their 20s. “Teens have a brain that’s still maturing,” explains Gould. “And until it is fully mature, that person will tend to act impulsively.”

In other words, it’s not that teens try to make impulsive decisions—it’s that sometimes they literally can’t help themselves. “The peer group influence, plus an immature ‘braking system,’ makes them more vulnerable to someone else’s suicide,” Gould says.

Lack of maturity also means that teens can find it hard to fully grasp the finality of death, adds John Jochem, a clinical psychologist in Vernon Hills who has helped train school social workers to spot at-risk students. “Teenagers don’t have a sense of mortality in the way that you and I do as adults,” Jochem says.

While imitation, impulsivity, and a sense of invulnerability are key contributing factors in cluster suicides, they’re not reasons for the suicides. To look for those reasons, in the mid-1980s some psychiatrists began to conduct what came to be known as “psychological autopsies” on teens. These are essentially detailed case histories developed by doing interviews with parents, siblings, peers, and any psychiatrists, social workers, or others who may have had information or insight into the teen’s mental state.

David Clark, a psychiatry professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, has performed more psychological autopsies than just about anyone. From 1990 to 1995, he conducted them on 100 of the 120 teens who killed themselves in Cook, Lake, and DuPage Counties over those five years. Most of the suicides were not of the cluster variety. However, he found that, even for the cluster suicides among them, “the deaths were always multifactor,” Clark says. “We never found [only] one contributing reason or circumstance. There was always a nest of them.”

What does that nest consist of? The next year, in 1996, Gould and several colleagues published a study of 120 young people who had killed themselves around the same time in the New York City area. They found that “the most notable risks were derived from school problems, a family history of suicidal behavior, poor parent-child communication, and stressful life events.”

So while the pressure of living in a high-achieving town is not by itself a risk factor for suicide, combine that with other issues—say, a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend and a heated argument with a parent—and the risk grows. Especially if another kid in the neighborhood, or on the news, has already led the way. “If I’m a troubled kid and I’m struggling with X, Y, and Z, and I am really hopeless or helpless or purposeless, and then somebody sort of shows me a way to end my problems—and to do it in a way that gets everybody talking about me, no less—it achieves a certain appeal,” says Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.

Add alcohol or substance abuse and the risk increases still more, says Berman. He studied a cluster of seven suicides in Monmouth County, New Jersey, from 2008 to 2010 (there have been three additional suicides since). “There was a lot of heavy drinking, a lot of drug use” in many of the cases, he says. “And then on the night or day of their death, there was binge drinking. The problem is, if I have a long-standing problem using alcohol and drugs, and I’m drunk on the night my girlfriend tells me to go to hell, it’s just a bad recipe.”

In the 1990s, David Shaffer, a doctor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Columbia, conducted research that revealed another pattern. A staggering percentage of teens who die by suicide—fully 90 percent—have a previously diagnosed psychiatric illness, usually depression. (It should be noted that most teens or adults with depression do not go on to kill themselves.) Those illnesses “might not be apparent” to friends or teachers, says Gould, who collaborated with Shaffer on the study. Which is why it is not uncommon to hear people saying sorrowfully after a teen kills himself: “He seemed like such a happy kid.”

* * *

 

More than 400 students, parents, and townspeople packed the First Presbyterian Church of Lake Forest for the April memorial service honoring Edward Schutt, the son of the president of Lake Forest College and the last of the local students to die in front of a speeding train. Services had already been held for the first, Farid Hussain, as well as for William Laskero-Teskoski. But perhaps because it was the third such memorial in three months, it was a particularly gut-wrenching 90 minutes. “In the past, Lake Forest even grieved with decorum,” one father told me. “But this was probably the most brutal thing I ever attended. I’ve never seen so much emotional pain in one place.”

That response is understandable, particularly among adults overwhelmed by feelings of guilt. “Believe me, those parents are still really chewing themselves out,” says Clark. “But it is not easy to see this coming. It may not even be possible. One has to be very humble about holding [the town’s adults] to impossible standards.”

Jochem concurs. “I believe that the search for underlying causes is really about trying to manage anxiety,” he says. “People will ask, ‘Does it say something about us as a community?’ From my point of view, the answer is no. It doesn’t say anything about any community because it can happen in any community.”

Since the three deaths, Lake Foresters have thrown themselves into trying to prevent further anguish. Working with representatives from Northwestern and Johns Hopkins Universities, the town created a wellness task force that, among other things, will assess the community’s mental health resources. They have organized forums for locals to air their concerns and reached out to officials in Barrington and Palo Alto, towns that have experienced their own cluster suicide crises.

Meanwhile, the high school has stepped up efforts to identify at-risk teenagers. Jochem has provided what’s called gatekeeper training to the school’s teachers and administrators, instructing them on what to watch for. (The American Association of Suicidology provides a useful mnemonic, IS PATH WARM, to remember the warning signs for suicide: ideation, substance abuse, purposelessness, anxiety, trapped, hopelessness, withdrawal, anger, recklessness, and mood changes.) He has also ensured that school social workers, counselors, and psychologists are prepared to conduct interviews with any at-risk kids. “Suicide is preventable,” Gould stresses. “It just takes a community committed to reaching out, to letting young people know the door is open for them to come and talk about anything—no matter how horrible.

But for cluster suicides in particular, an additional approach may be needed—one that goes back to the impulsive teenage brain. If a troubled or angry or sad kid has the impulse to kill herself, maybe making it even harder to accomplish could be enough to deter that first suicide—and the copycats that follow. That may mean focusing on the train tracks.

The part of the tracks where the second student, William Laskero-Teskoski, took his life is directly across from Lake Forest High School. Students often congregate nearby. To reach the rails, you simply climb a small paved path to a bike trail, dip down through a clump of scraggly trees, and then trudge a few more yards up another rise. “No Trespassing” signs flank the entrance up to the tracks. At the top, gleaming rails extend miles to the north and south. It seems an improbable place for a young man to want to die.

To Berman, who is working on a study about suicide on train lines, the reason so many teens choose death by train is simple: accessibility. “There are going to be more suicides by firearm among gun-owning families than among those that don’t own guns,” he says. “The same thing is true of railroads, particularly in communities where the train line essentially runs through town or runs close to a place where kids hang out.”

In the midst of the suicide crisis in Palo Alto, parents launched an initiative called Track Watch. Groups of volunteers assembled near a stretch of rail whenever a train was due to make sure no one was on the tracks. Tragically, that effort was not enough: In January 2010, a Palo Alto teen died after being hit by a train.

A physical barrier might be more reliable. Chip Pew, head of the Illinois office of Operation Lifesaver, a nonprofit group aimed at improving rail safety, says that he is working with Metra and Lake Forest to determine if putting up protective fencing is a “viable option.” There would be complications, of course: “You have to determine whose property it is, where the best place to put it would be; make sure people can’t jump over it, cut through it, or walk around it.” Another consideration, he adds, would be maintaining the fence, and a systematic patrol of the fenced areas is a must.

None of that would come cheap—and Pew wonders how well a barrier would work: “If the fence is 95 feet long, [a suicidal person] is going to walk 96 feet.”

Some research, however, suggests that many would-be suicides don’t doggedly look for the break in a barrier. They just give up—at least long enough for the suicidal moment to pass. “If you put a barrier at a location that people associate with suicide, the suicide rate in that region declines,” says Jochem. A 1994 study by the American Association of Suicidology looked at the effect of putting a barrier on a bridge in Washington, D.C., where people often leaped to their deaths. In the five years following the installation, suicides stopped there, and the suicide rate at a nearby bridge remained unchanged.

The reason? People in a suicidal state, explains Jochem, have a “tunnel vision” that prevents them from solving problems. “A person in that state of mind,” he says, “may not be resourceful enough to consider an alternative means”—such as going to the other bridge. If a barrier stops even one of these kids, many would argue that it’s worth the cost.

* * *

On a sunny late-spring afternoon, students at Lake Forest High School begin to trickle out in ones, twos, and threes, all gangly limbs and goofy laughs. Clutching books and backpacks, they fan into the lovely tree-lined neighborhood behind the school or cross the enormous swath of green lawn out front. Some of them head to McKinley Road, trudge up a small rise, and walk along the bike path that runs parallel to the tracks, going downtown for coffee or a slice of pizza.

Though they are passing at least one of the sites where a classmate died, none of the kids seem fazed. One student, Nick (he asked that I use only his first name), shrugs when I ask about the deaths. Like most everyone at the school, he says, he was shocked and crushed as the deaths unfolded. “People were in the bathrooms crying or just sitting in the hallways during one of the periods, wondering why this kept happening,” he remembers. The good news, he adds, was that students began talking more openly: about the school, the problems they faced, and the specter of suicide.

He pauses for a moment as a sudden loud noise drowns out his words. The Metra train had come on quickly, but it passes with a whoosh and just as quickly is gone. Nick has to get going, too, he says. He slings his backpack over his shoulder, and without looking back, he walks on down the path.

* * *

A Delicate Balance

Writing about suicide is difficult under any circumstances. But a story about a cluster of teenagers who killed themselves can be particularly challenging, especially when suicide experts differ on the extent to which media coverage may be part of the problem.

Most experts agree that editors should not use the word “suicide” in headlines and should never glorify or romanticize such deaths—casting them, for instance, as Romeo and Juliet–style moments of passion. That, they say, could put ideas into the heads of kids who are already on the cusp of making a fatal choice.

Beyond that, however, there are conflicting viewpoints. For example, a number of experts recommend against explicitly describing the method used in a suicide. In its media guidelines for writing about self-inflicted deaths, the World Health Organization warns that “a step-by-step description may prompt vulnerable people to copy the act.” The agency also discourages providing detailed information on the place where a death occurred because “sometimes a location can develop a reputation as a ‘suicide site.’ ”

Conversely, a study of suicide attempts published in 2001 by the American Journal of Epidemiology argues that media coverage can actually deter copycat behavior. Some experts maintain that focusing the harsh light of reality on suicides—even including details about their ugly aftermaths—can persuade teens to think twice. “I think talking about the pain the person who commits suicide suffers, the disfigurement, the pain left behind in the relatives and friends [is important],” says David Phillips, a sociologist at the University of California at San Diego who has spent nearly four decades studying suicide clusters. “I don’t think kids have any idea how messy a suicide can be.”

After consulting with Phillips and others, Chicago decided not to use the word “suicide” in the headline, not to run photographs of the exact locations of the deaths, and not to speculate on what might have motivated the three students to take their own lives.

Share

Advertisement

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove offensive language, commercial messages, and irrelevancies.

Submit your comment
{* *}