Two years after a compassionate Cherry Creek High School freshman died by suicide, his friends and family continue to push for changes in how schools approach students' mental health challenges.
Rick Padilla, father of Jack Padilla, gathered with a few dozen teenagers and adults Feb. 14 at Village Greens Park in Greenwood Village, where a bench dedicated to his son sits. Padilla assembled the event to mark two years since his son died, but the day also served as a rallying point for students who are pushing for what they say are more needed changes after the suicide deaths of Jack Padilla and other local students.
Five students in Cherry Creek School District died by suicide in less than six months in 2019. Multiple students died by suicide in the span of 40 days in Adams 12 Five Star Schools around the end of that year, according to a Jan. 24, 2020, news release from Adams 12.
“It's time for you to stand up, raise your voice and say enough is enough,” Rick Padilla told the crowd.
Padilla advocated for bills last year in the state Legislature to tackle youth mental health challenges, and he plans to support a bill again this year.
Along with experiencing depression, Jack Padilla dealt with bullying at school and on social media. Last year's state legislative proposal, which his father called the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” would have made bullying policies consistent among Colorado school districts.
Suicide is complex and almost always has multiple causes, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That can include mental illnesses, which are treatable, the foundation says.
Amid the deaths of Cherry Creek district students in 2019, the Cherry Creek district enacted changes aimed at preventing suicide and raising awareness about mental struggles: It added two new directors of mental health. It assigned a mental health coordinator to each of the district's six high school “feeder” regions to better help students who need it most, and it began expanding suicide prevention programming in its high schools.
Some teenagers at Padilla's remembrance event hadn't noticed any changes, though, and they urged Cherry Creek High to do more.
One of them was Paxton Dwyer, an 11th-grader at Cherry Creek High who played on the same lacrosse team with Jack Padilla. His sister, Tierney Dwyer, died by suicide about a month after Padilla in 2019, Dwyer said. Tierney Dwyer attended Creek as a freshman and eventually went to St. Mary's Academy in the south metro area.
Paxton Dwyer argued that Cherry Creek officials' response to students who ask for help can come up short or even counterproductive.
But “I think there's a future ahead” for progress on the issue if students collaborate with school administration, Dwyer said.
Padilla's family remembers Jack as a compassionate, “fun-loving” kid. His family has drawn strength from students who knew him and have worked to raise awareness about suicide in the past couple years.
"It pains me to know Jack is gone, but I never imagined I'd have so many kids," Jeanine Padilla told the crowd, noting the “community you have developed around Jack.”
Rick Padilla hopes for the state Legislature to green-light mandatory anti-bullying laws, “rather than (different) school boards deciding if it's bullying and how to investigate,” Padilla said last year. Establishing an appeal process would also be part of the goal.
This year's expected proposal remains basically the same except supporters would add counseling support for both the bully and the target of bullying, Padilla said.
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