Community members circle Sprague High School in prayer during a vigil on Sunday, Oct. 7 following a student's suicide. (Courtesy/Shelby Lauderdale)
On Sunday, they stood side by side, more than 1,000 strong, holding hands in a human chain that encircled Sprague High School.
They were students, staff and alumni.
They came to remember junior Aaron Brown.
Some asked for God’s blessing on his parents.
Others bowed their heads, silently, or cried.
Brown, the son of Sprague choir director David Brown, died by suicide last Thursday, according to Facebook posts from his parents. He is the second Sprague student to die from a suicide this school year.
Nina White, who has a son and daughter in the Sprague choir program, said David Brown has been a positive role model and influence for her son, and wanted to do something to help heal the community.
“What came to my heart was we need to pray and we need to get as many people as we can to that school,” she said.
(Video by Jack McAllister)
Principal Craig Swanson disclosed Brown’s death to parents in an email last Thursday and said the school would provide grief counselors for students.
“Nothing has prepared us to have these conversations with our children, and we will continue to provide every support possible for our community,” Swanson wrote. Grief counselors are still at school this week.
White put out an informal invitation on Facebook, asking people to gather that Sunday. She was not expecting more than 1,000 people to turn up.
As the number of people attending the Sunday event grew, White said she got in touch with Swanson, who opened the school commons to the group.
Christian faith leaders from many denominations around Salem joined parents, current students and staff to show their support, according to an account to the event written by Shelby Lauderdale, a Sprague alumna who graduated in 1990.
“I can’t tell you what this means to see you all here this Sunday,” Swanson told the crowd, according to Lauderdale’s account.
Several others addressed the gathering before Brown’s mother, DeLee, stepped to the front and “bravely led us in prayer, her voice resilient, focused, full of faith, and yet soft, sad, introspective. The lunch hall for once was completely silent except for her fervency,” Lauderdale wrote.
Then, those attending were asked to step outside and join hands around the school building.
Sprague community members form a prayer circle around the school. (Courtesy/Shelby Lauderdale)
"It was remarkable to look left, to look right, to look at hundreds of people in my site line, facing the building, hand in hand, praying,” Lauderdale wrote. “This was a boots-to-the-ground, passionate and respectful crying-out-to-God to save our kids. This was an encircling of the parents among us who have lost their children. This was solidarity and the love of Jesus at its best.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24 in Oregon, according to the Oregon Health Authority. In 2016, 98 people under 24 died by suicide. That year, Oregon had the 15th highest youth suicide rate in the nation.
In Marion County, 20 percent of 11th graders and 14 percent of 8th graders said they had seriously considered attempting suicide in a 2017 statewide survey by the health authority.
Suicide is devastating for peers and community members, but it is preventable, said Natalie Sept, spokeswoman for Lines for Life, Oregon’s suicide and crisis line, and most are prevented. It’s common for people who do try to take their own life to talk about wanting their pain to end, rather than their lives.
Statewide, 12,278 young people reached out to Oregon’s youth crisis line in 2017, Sept said.
The prayer circle is just one way the Sprague community has responded to Brown’s death. More than 200 people contributed a total of $14,000 in a single day to an online fundraiser to pay for his funeral and establish a choir scholarship in his name at Sprague.
White said her son, a junior, is among students who have an extra period for choir in the morning before school.
Though David Brown has been taking time off following his son’s death, the students are still showing up.
“They’re still going early in the morning even though there’s not a teacher there,” she said. “They just love him and they love the program he’s made.”
She said other parents have talked about holding similar prayer circles at other district high schools.
“I don’t even have words, really. Never did I think that just putting that out there would make such a difference. I just hope that more people will step out and do something and be there for these kids,” White said.
DeLee Brown shared a video from the prayer circle on Facebook, saying she was thankful to be able to pray together with the community.
“Please continue to pray for all of youth, particularly those who suffer with depression and other mental health issues,” she wrote.
Warning signs for suicide include withdrawal, isolation and talking about being in unbearable pain or being a burden to others. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a list of risk factors, warning signs and suggestions for helping someone who may be thinking about suicide.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK(8255), and connects callers with a crisis center near them. For help in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454.
Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.