The Coroner’s Court has been told there was a dramatic increase in the number of young people seeking pastoral care, after several Geelong students killed themselves in 2009.
The Coroner is investigating the deaths of Zach Harvey, 15, Taylor Janssen, 16, and Chanelle Rae, 14, who were students at different campuses of Western Heights College, when they ended their lives.
The Coroner, Judge Gray, has described the deaths as “tragic”.
The regional manager of student well-being at the time, Liz Jones, told the court a school normally counsels about 20 at-risk students, after a pupil takes their life, but after Chanelle Rae’s death that number rose to 70.
“We certainly saw a shift to the more intensive end of the scale,” she said.
Ms Jones told the court, many students were worried they might be at risk of committing suicide because it was “contagious”.
She also told the court that after Taylor Janssen’s death, welfare staff at the school uncovered and dealt with a “suicide pact” between two girls at the school.
She told the court each girl had confessed plans to kill themselves if the other did, and counsellors worked with the girls intensively to make sure this did not happen.
‘Problematic’ media coverage
Ms Jones said the school had a number of strategies in place to deal with suicide, bullying and mental illness among its students.
“They had strong pastoral care processes,” she said.
She said extra resources were called in to respond to Chanelle Rae’s death in July, 2009.
But she said the intense media attention placed a lot of pressure on staff.
She said someone wrote to the principal threatening to kill her if the bullying at the school continued.
The court heard there was an increase in staff sick leave after the suicides, and only one of the five senior principal staff members is still teaching in Victoria.
Ms Jones said the media coverage of the deaths was “problematic”, and described how reporters and camera crews were seen outside the front of the school.
“There were students arriving at school distressed because they had been approached by the media,” she said.
Some students told staff reporters had also approached them through social media.
She said the school struggled to manage student welfare with the constant requests from the media.
“It was a response of unprecedented level and I’d say to the limit of our programs,” she said.
The Coroner is investigating the deaths, with a particular focus on the role of the media, cyber-bullying and the support available to students.
The hearing continues.
This article first appeared on ABC News on 19 November 2013.