Making a permanent impression since 1994
July 18, 2005
School hit with three deaths in freshman class
After losing two freshmen to suicide
and another to a fatal car wreck since school began last fall, the shaken high
school student body in Prior Lake, Minnesota ended the year burdened with tragic
“Obviously, students lost their
friends. They were grieving. Death kind of blanketed the school, especially the
freshmen class,” said Nancy VanHorne, the school social worker.
Superintendent Tom Westerhaus of the
Prior Lake-Savage school district, last spring called it a time of
“uncertainty and fear” for families in the district.
Westerhaus said he hoped that by the
district moving forward, the families of the three dead boys as well others
would find peace.
But peace seemed to be far out of reach
for many when three deaths in one year drastically changed the atmosphere of the
Prior Lake High School.
Nate Vanek, who would have been a
freshman at the school last fall, died in a car accident at the end of summer
vacation last year.
On the way back from a movie theater
one evening, the car Vanek was in went off a curvy road. Others in the car were
hospitalized and survived, but Vanek, who was not wearing a seat belt, was not
one of them. He was thrown out of the car then got rolled over. He was
pronounced dead at the scene.
According to 15-year-old Jesse McKee,
Vanek was a very popular guy among his freshmen class and deeply missed.
T-shirts with his last yearbook picture on them were sold to remember him by.
The overwhelming sense of grief
wouldn’t have hit the school as hard if Vanek’s death was the only one that
But in March, another freshman, Brad
Hoppe, committed suicide.
“He used one of his hunting shot
guns,” said David Tusa, 15, a freshman.
Hoppe cut off the phone lines and took
off his socks to try to pull the trigger with his toes. He put the rifle to the
top of his mouth and shot himself.
But a quick death with little pain
wasn’t how he left this world. Hoppe bled to death.
After Hoppe’s death, his fellow
students made ribbons out of army camouflage fabric during lunch periods. They
tied them around their wrists and pinned them onto backpacks to remind them of
Just when the tears had almost stopped
flowing – and when teachers thought emergency meetings were nearly over –
tragedy struck the school again.
No one was ready for another suicide.
Two weeks after Hoppe’s death, Dan
Krinke, another freshman, also took his own life.
“He got drunk and shot himself to
death,” said David Tusa, 15.
Krinke locked himself in his
brother’s room with a suicide note and died there.
Reluctant to glorify his death or
otherwise promote suicide – and following the superintendent’s suggestion
– his family kept the funeral private and asked that no special memorabilia be
made in Krinke’s honor. They wanted his death taken seriously and to see an
end to the tragedies.
Following Krinke’s suicide,
teary-eyed faces and blank stares became the norm at school.
Neither Hoppe nor Krinke seemed to show
any signs of depression or suicide to their classmates.
To David Tusa, Hoppe was
“talkative” and “outgoing.”
Tusa said Hoppe “talked to anyone in
Krinke “kind of had the same
personality,” Tusa said.
McKee, who was friends with Krinke,
said Krinke was “usually happy and hyper.”
No one seems to have noticed any signs
of depression or suicidal behaviors, if there were any at all. To many of their
classmates and friends, the suicides contradicted the boys’ regular
personalities and characteristics.
“I was very shocked and saddened,”
Shortly after the suicides, a speaker
came to the high school and talked to the students about teen depression and
suicide. Most freshmen skipped their classes that day, and teachers headed for
more emergency meetings.
VanHorne said the losses took a toll on
the student body and taxed the school’s coping abilities.
“We were capable, to an extent,”
said VanHorne. “Three events in one year, any school would have trouble
dealing with that.”
VanHorne said she asked herself,
“What did I miss?”
Counselors, social workers, and
teachers felt the heaviness of the responsibilities that their roles bring them,
especially in the midst of such tragedies.
But in a school of more than 1,800
students, even the best social workers would have a hard time getting to know
Taking such tough matters personally
can often be too much. VanHorne said sometimes she has to remind herself that it
also is the school’s work, not only hers.
Now that the school year is over, the
memory of these three lost freshmen boys will begin to fade for those who
didn’t know them. That might be for the better – maybe remembrance of the
dead should only go so far.
Maybe then, the suicides will be a thing of the past for those in the future of the school. However, for those of us who not only felt, but were a part of that tragic school year, accepting our memory of our three fellow students may be our road to peace.
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