As of Monday, Mark and Joni Adler had talked to more than 19,000 high school students about the loss of their son, Reid to suicide on Jan. 7, 2016.
They could talk to 90,000 students, Joni Adler said, and they’d still have the same hurt, the same dramatically altered lives they have had since Reid was found dead in their Ralston home.
Mark, the superintendent of Ralston Public Schools, and Joni spoke for an hour in the David City High School gym. The DCHS students were riveted by the tragic tale, one that has been come all too common across the country as the age-old torment of bullying has been accelerated, vastly altered, by the everyday use of smart phones and social media.
The story: A few months before his death, Reid, a freshman at Ralston, had reached out to his parents about suicidal thoughts and feelings. The tight-knit family sought and received help, but Reid didn’t disclose the true core of the problem. Months earlier, the family would later find out, Reid had taken an inappropriate picture of his body. He had sent it to a girl.
The Adlers explained that the girl had used the photo to threaten, manipulate and bully Reid, until finally the night of his suicide, she had apparently made good on her threat, and shared the photo on social media. The Adlers learned later of Reid’s text discussion with his friends, his threatening of suicide and then telling them he “was kidding.” Another friend of Reid’s went to bed thinking the crisis was over, but she was notified the next day at school that Reid was dead.
As in so many stories about suicide, the threat was not conveyed to those who could step in and prevent Reid’s death. Mark Adler chronicled the family’s life before and after the suicide, noting that the Adlers chose to talk about the experience to “bring something positive out of something so negative.”
Joni Adler spoke about healing of forgiveness – for those who were aware of the threat, for the girl who, they later found, had certainly not known that Reid would kill himself over the photo.
Much of the Adlers’ presentation focused on the future. They acknowledged that telling young people to stop bullying isn’t the easy answer. It’s a lot more complicated than that. But Joni Adler asked anyway.
“I’m asking you to stop,” she said, noting that it’s a natural instinct for a person to lash out at someone who has hurt them. But if the lashing out becomes repeated on social media, the effect is magnified, she said.
“If it doesn’t stop with you, who is it going to stop with?” she said.
The Adlers said they were trying to “raise an army of kindness.”
Mark Adler said that students need to step up and be leaders when it comes to creating a culture of kindness. Just as in athletics, he said, students need to strive harder when they feel they’ve reached their limit.
The family, they said, was fortunate to have created a lot of memories with Reid and his two sisters. Reid was known as a friend to all, regardless of a person’s background or family situation. On the family tailgate trips to Nebraska football games at Memorial Stadium, he frequently brought seven or eight friends along in the family’s converted RV. He went out of his way to help anyone who was having a bad day at school, including teachers.
Reid was an athlete and sports bonded the father and son. In the fall of 2015 he got to suit up with the varsity football team.
Mark Adler said the family faced options after Reid’s death. They could move and find new jobs. They could avoid dealing with the aftermath in a town where Mark’s job made them known to many.
They chose to speak up about long lasting pain that ripples from a suicide.
“We don’t want any family to feel what we feel,” Mark said.
Chad Denker, supertintendent of David City Public Schools, said the district invited the Adlers to speak after seeing them at a statewide administrator’s gathering.
DCHS Principal Cortney Couch said that with the recent concerns being raised about school safety and firearms, the message of kindness was critical across many issues facing young people. For all the students who are affected by bully-related suicide or violence, he said, there are many more who are adversely affected in their academic careers and beyond.