The end of last school year was horrible, says 14-year-old Emma Hollis. The hurt and pain were almost too much to bear.
Five students at her school, Discovery Canyon Campus, had committed suicide in the second semester.
"It was a very hard thing to interpret," Emma said Thursday, choking back tears.
This school year, kids are seeing "a different way of interpreting" the sad story, she said.
Lining the top of every hallway of the large preschool through high school campus in Academy School District 20 is a continuous chain of thousands of paper koi fish that students, teachers, parents, custodians and other staff created.
It's a symbol of unity and hope, says art teacher Shell Acker.
"Our kids don't have enough tricks in their handbags to know that tomorrow will be a better day," Acker said. "The installation shows them to keep swimming and that we are swimming right along with them."
The "Keep Swimming," project encourages students to "push forward and never give up and say you can't do it," Emma said.
"People are going through tough times," she said. "This is a constant reminder - (the fish) are always hanging in the hallways."
Colorado Springs consistently ranks at the top of many national lists, including best places to live, but it also appears to be gaining an unwanted reputation as a hotbed of teen suicide. And this year isn't any different.
Shortly after school started, a student at The Classical Academy, a charter school, took his life on school grounds.
In recent weeks, two young people living on Fort Carson committed suicide, according to the El Paso County Coroner's Office.
Those deaths have pushed this year's total to 15 suicide fatalities of children ages 10 to 17. That tops last year's record of 14 deaths in that age group, the Coroner's Office says. About half were from gunshot wounds and half hangings.
"It's obviously not the direction we want to be moving in," said Dr. Leon Kelly, chief deputy medical examiner at the coroner's office.
An article published last month in Newsweek magazine depicted Colorado Springs as the teen suicide capital of the nation, said Janet Karnes, executive director of Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention Partnership.
"Identifying us as that is adding to the hysteria and trauma," she said.
But is it true?
It depends on how you interpret the numbers, but, in a word, yes.
Comparative national statistics are only available from 2012 to 2014, and only for counties that had 20 or more suicide deaths. During that period, El Paso County did have the highest rate in the nation.
Still, experts caution that the numbers are difficult to analyze and compare because agencies that keep track use different age ranges and variables.
Between 2013 and 2015, suicide was listed as the cause of death for 46 El Paso County children and teenagers ages 10 to 19, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
"This does represent a rate that is statistically higher than the statewide total for this age group," said Kirk Bol, manager of registries and vital statistics for the state health department.
However, Bol said, the rate was "not statistically different from the rates in other counties in the top 15."
Thus, it wouldn't be fair to characterize El Paso County's rates as the highest in the nation, Bol said.
"It would be more appropriate to describe the youth suicide rate in El Paso County as higher than the statewide rate for Colorado," he said, "but not statistically different from many other U.S. counties with similarly high rates."
Depression, loneliness, bullying, harassment, academic pressures, substance abuse, sexual abuse and sexual orientation can be contributing factors, experts say. Even altitude might play a role, according to school crises expert Scott Poland of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who said high altitude is being studied as having a causal relation to suicide.
The states with the highest suicide rates are in the West and include Alaska and Wyoming. Colorado ranks sixth in the nation for suicides.
A cluster, a number of suicides occurring in a relatively small area in a short period, such as what happened at Discovery Canyon, can be another cause: young people on the verge of taking their lives can be swayed by others having chosen to do the same thing, experts said.
Stepping up prevention efforts
Regardless of the numbers, El Paso County has a problem, said Susan Wheelan, a deputy director at the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment.
There's now a stepped up, concerted community effort to reverse the disturbing pattern, she said.
"We're working together to understand the gaps in the community and coordinate efforts," Wheelan said. "We're dedicated to trying to make a difference."
Two separate groups made up of representatives from the health department, human services, law enforcement, mental health providers, school, faith-based communities and hospitals are meeting monthly. One team reviews child fatalities and the other, a new coalition, is working on prevention methods.
"It hits us all very hard," Wheelan said. "It's crushing and heart-wrenching."
The local health department recently obtained a grant to hire a prevention planner, who Wheelan said is focusing on identifying how to better help kids in crisis and destigmatize the need to seek help.
Mental health screenings for children during something as routine as getting a flu shot are among the ideas being considered to fend off potential suicides.
Also, Peak View Behavioral Health on Nov. 1 opened a new 20-bed outpatient psychiatric center in Colorado Springs for children ages 9 to 12. The organization cites the lack of mental health providers in schools and the community's need to reach children struggling with mental health issues before they reach a crisis point.
"We're looking at not duplicating efforts but strengthening our efforts together," Wheelan said. "We're trying to hit it from all angles, with short-term and long-term approaches."
Other actions include schools introducing new curriculum addressing suicide, warning signs, how to help friends and other messages. Colorado Springs also was the site of a Suicide Youth Prevention and Intervention Symposium held last month.
Kelly, the chief medical examiner, said he's encouraged by the movement.
"We have people willing to put forth whatever effort is needed," he said. "I hope we turn it around soon. Ignoring the issue is not going to make it go away."
Resiliency, optimism are learned
The problem is not an easy or simple fix, experts say.
Suicide is a complex issue, said Karnes, whose organization provides support groups and educational programs about prevention.
There's not one reason. There's not one answer. There's not one person or one thing to blame.
And the vague parameters are changing.
For example, the lack of connectedness in a teen's life used to be considered a trigger, Karnes said. Research now shows that social connectedness, in particular social media, is part of the problem.
"We're all scratching our heads," she said, adding that she's planning on doing local surveys asking teens for their take on the issue.
About 600 parents and other community members attended a presentation in October titled, "Safeguarding children in changing times," held at The Classical Academy, which had the suicide symposium in September and also one last school year.
Poland discussed how suicide, bullying and social media combine to create tragedies.
While not every suicide can be prevented, many can, he said, by paying attention, disseminating good information and getting the right mental health treatment for those having difficulties with life.
A 2015 Youth Risk Surveillance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that nearly 18 percent of teen respondents had seriously considered suicide and nearly 9 percent had attempted it. Just 3 percent got medical help.
Parents can be proactive by knowing who their children's friends are, how they're spending their time, being involved in school and homework, and letting children experience consequences for their actions, Poland said.
"All children need to be surrounded by loving, caring family and friends," he said. "Resiliency is a learned behavior. Optimism is a learned behavior."
Parents also should talk to their children about suicide and how they're not alone, Poland said. Tell them how much you care about them, that you're there for them. He also recommends removing access to lethal means by locking up guns, alcohol and prescription medications.
Among the warning signs: withdrawing from friends and activities; changes in moods to the point it affects schoolwork and social life; a lack of energy; changes in appetite; sleeping too much; self-harm; persistent sadness; impulsiveness; giving away possessions; threats; and a history of loss.
"Exposure to suicide is a risk factor, and your children have all been exposed," Poland said.
"What really has to happen is it's going to take an entire village; everybody's going to have to collaborate. The vast majority of suicides are preventable."
Protective factors, according to the World Health Organization, include building good relationships with other youths, seeking adult help when needed, access to mental health care, religiosity, family cohesion and stability, positive self esteem, academic success and being involved with extracurricular activities.
"Tell them they truly are the sons and daughters you always wanted," Poland advised parents. "A kid shouldn't have to say, 'I'm going to kill myself' to get attention. They should be able to say, 'I'm frustrated, angry, overwhelmed.'"
An everyday battle
Suicide is scary, said Craig Smedley of Colorado Springs, now 30, who attempted suicide three times.
"I'm lucky to still be here," he said while participating in a recent suicide awareness walk in Colorado Springs, sponsored by mental health provider AspenPointe. "I'm in the process of trying to overcome everything."
Smedley was a student at the time of his first attempt. Life was overwhelming, and suicide seemed like the best way out of the pain, he said. He gained a lot of weight, got depressed, isolated himself and eventually was diagnosed with body dysmorphic disorder, a type of obsessive-compulsive behavior.
A therapist has helped him find his way back.
"I started going to the gym, I met my girlfriend, I got support from my family, I relied on my faith, and I'm OK with being around people now," he said.
The ups and downs continue. "I battle with it every day."
Sixteen-year-old Promyse Zwick-Medina, a student at Community Prep School, said she used to be suicidal.
She was in a psychiatric hospital for a while, she went to therapy and took medications.
"One day, I decided not to do it anymore," she said softly. "I decided I didn't want it for myself. I didn't want to go back to a facility."
Promyse learned to distract herself from suicidal thoughts. Uplifting music is best for her, she said.
"People tried to force me to talk a lot of times, and I didn't want to," she said. "I didn't feel comfortable."
It's still hard for her to talk about it.
Promyse also learned to forgive others and herself.
"Things are looking good now," she said. "It's been eight months since I did any self-harm, and I'm proud of myself at this point."
The single greatest tragedy
Even when children seem outwardly to be doing well, they're often hurting inside, which makes the deaths even more baffling.
The boy from The Classical Academy who committed suicide in September was a member of New Life Church's youth ministry, Desperation, said Pastor Brady Boyd.
"The single greatest tragedy is the sudden loss of a child," he said.
Boyd has two teenagers, one of whom attended Discovery Canyon Campus last school year and knew some of the students who committed suicide.
"I can't imagine how devastated the families are," Boyd said.
In such a case, the primary role of churches is to offer comfort and help families "grieve well and properly and give them space to mourn," Boyd said.
"The church has played a central role in helping parents cope with the really difficult issues of the day," he said. "It's a big responsibility."
Even when children are active in a church and hear messages of hope and good news, anxieties about school, family situations and other situations that lead to a breakdown of mental health influence children.
"Parents often don't recognize the signs or don't know how to get help," Boyd said. "We're trying to do a better job of helping parents.
"I feel like we are in a desperate hour."
Kelly, the county's chief medical examiner, is worried.
"Last December was a devastating month for us," he said.
Four teen suicides were completed that month.
"We're coming up against the same time of year again, and maybe that was a one-year atypical trend," he said. "Parents knowing that and having it at the front of their mind can spur conversation with one kid and maybe save a life."
Remember to keep going
Some students at Discovery Canyon Campus at first weren't sure about the meaning of the Keep Swimming project. Now, they get it.
It is, after all, a quote from Dory, the forgetful blue fish in Disney's "Finding Nemo" movie and this year's "Finding Dory."
"Nobody is going to be left behind. We're all helping each other finishing school and getting to where we need to be. We're all fish swimming in the same direction," said sixth-grader Melissa Lofthouse.
"We're a big family going upstream," said 12-year-old Jonas Johnson. "All your friends and family are with you, and they're not going to leave you."
The fish are made of construction paper, scrapbook paper, wallpaper, sheet music, magazine pages and in different sizes, designs and colors. A teacher who's pregnant added a pink baby in the belly of her fish. Several fish have professional football team themes. Some have eyelashes and lips, and of course there's Dory and Nemo.
Next week, a surveying team will be at Discovery Canyon Campus to figure out if the project set a Guinness World Record for the longest paper chain of animals. That part was a student's idea, said the art teacher, Asher.
They're trying to beat 4,420 paper animals and 2,502 feet of chain.
Asher thinks they can do it.
"It's real symbolic," said 12-year old Nadia Cota. "They represent the way we feel. The fish are all friends, and we're happily pushing through."
"It's so meaningful to all the students," said pre-K through fifth-grade art teacher Pamela Quarles.
"Keep Swimming" is especially meaningful for sixth-grader Nic Antonucci.
"Because of things that have happened in my life," he said. "I have two cousins who committed suicide, and I need to remember that reference to keep going."