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Friends Seek Answers in Student's Suicide

March 26, 1987|STEPHANIE O'NEILL | Times Staff Writer

To Tim Jorgensen, the suicide last week of his childhood friend and Hoover High School classmate Justin Peterson, 17, still seems unreal.

"I feel like he just went away on vacation," the 17-year-old senior said.

"I don't think I've fully accepted it. I don't know if I ever will," said Dan Kelson, another of Peterson's close boyhood friends. "I think a lot of people haven't accepted it."

Peterson, a handsome varsity football player, Eagle Scout and active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, shot himself in the head March 18 after leading his three best friends on an hour and a half chase that ended on Angeles Crest Highway.

Peterson's death, which followed by just several weeks the widely publicized group suicide of four teen-agers in Bergenfield, N.J., has shaken the school district, prompting school officials to review suicide prevention education offered in local schools.

"This is one area in the near future that will be discussed among our administrative staff, our psychologists as well as our teaching staff," said Vic Pallos, school district spokesman. "Because of the very rare instances we haven't felt the need to have a formal program."

Pallos, who has worked for the district since 1971, said he could recall no other suicide of a student enrolled in a Glendale school.

Last Thursday, after news of Peterson's death spread through Hoover High, school staff members transformed the girl's gymnasium into a makeshift counseling center where four district psychologists spoke with students throughout the day, said Don Duncan, principal.

School officials visited each classroom last Thursday morning to personally notify students of the death and inform them of the drop-in counseling service, he said.

"By second period, there were probably 50 to 60 kids" seeking counseling, said Duncan. "There were a lot of guilty feelings going around," said Judy Yager, a district psychologist who was assigned to counsel Peterson's closest friends. "It's an issue everyone directly involved with the case is going to have to deal with."

Now, suicide prevention is formally discussed in Glendale schools only in a 10th-grade health class, Pallos said. But, for students such as Jorgensen and Kelson, the class did not make a big impression.

"I remember something," said Kelson, "but it wasn't particularly anything that stuck in my mind." "I don't even remember that section at all," Jorgensen said.

Yager said it would be better if the district offered students a stress-management course in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, rather than focusing on a specific suicide prevention class.

Yager and other experts cite increased pressures on today's teens as a major contributor to suicide rates. Nationwide, an estimated 12 of 100,000 persons ages 15 to 24 commit suicide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

"Competition for colleges is just incredible. The increase in graduation requirements is a big pressure. Society is expecting so much more academically without realizing that not everybody comes out of an academic mold. Some kids have their strength in other areas," she said.

Yager also said the "disintegration of the family unit" has added to the burdens experienced by youngsters.

"It's hard for students today to have any kind of family time with their parents," she said. "Families really have to work at it to keep their lines of communication open."

Yager estimated that about 10% of the 100 to 150 Glendale students who seek her counseling services each year discuss suicide. Such teen-agers, she said, include students from all social, economic and racial categories.

"They feel down at the moment and it's an impulsive act," she said.

Still Seeking Clues

On Tuesday, nearly a week after the local suicide, those who knew Peterson were still asking themselves what troubled the popular youngster.

"We were watching the girls drill team competition with him Wednesday morning and he was joking and laughing with us. He seemed fine," said Jorgensen. "The night before we were playing broom hockey at church. He was having a great time."

Steven Alvord, Peterson's stepfather, who described his son as a "typical American kid," said he noticed nothing amiss either.

"We've gone back and reviewed everything . . . he gave us absolutely no indication," he said. "It just wasn't Justin."

Shortly before 4 p.m. last Wednesday, Peterson arrived arrived at Kelson's house in a "totally hysterical" state.

"I'd never seen him like this before. He came into my room sobbing and crying," Kelson recalled. "He started walking around my room saying, 'Nothing matters anymore, Danny.' He pulled out a gun and I didn't know what to do. Then he just ran out to his car, locked the doors and drove off."

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