Crisis team responds to area schools for third time this week after second teen death

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD – This is what they train for. This is why they are there.

For the third time this week, the Safford Unified School District Crisis Response Team was deployed to assist students and teachers in the wake of a tragedy after a second Safford High School student reportedly committed suicide.

According to Graham County Sheriff’s Office report, Christopher Austin, 16, was found deceased at his residence on 16th Lane south of Safford, where Austin had apparently hanged himself. A deputy arrived at the scene at about 7:11 p.m. to find a male attempting cardio pulmonary resuscitation. The officer took over CPR until Southwest Ambulance arrived and transported Austin to the Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center (MGRMC), where he was declared deceased at 7:57 p.m.

Austin had reportedly written on his arm, “Wake me when life is worth it.” His death does not seem to be connected with the apparent suicide of Nico Cisneros on Monday, who also attended Safford High School.

The district’s crisis response team, which is made up of volunteer teachers who receive specialized training, was initially dispatched Monday to Safford High School to assist students and teachers as needed. Henry Dunkerson, the head of the crisis team, said the team has responded to the Safford High School for the deaths and to Ruth Powell Elementary School after one of its students, Savinya Kimball, went missing Monday. Kimball was located Tuesday morning walking along Highway 78 in New Mexico with the Lawrence Halamek, 34, who allegedly picked her up at her bus top and was “trying to help her out”, according to Halamek’s sister.

Dunkerson said his team has been busier in year’s past, and that this year had been pretty quiet until this week. He said the team is there for students and teachers who need to talk to someone about what they are feeling.

“Once kids are in school, if they are having a tough time they meet with our counselors in out staging areas,” Dunkerson said. “We basically help get the grieving process started by asking very generic questions; get them talking, get them sharing. There’s nothing therapeutic about it. It’s just sitting there, being there to comfort kids and listen.”

“Every time the bell rings you may have a different group of kids coming in,” Dunkerson said. “We just be there for them and support the staff as well if staff members are having a difficult time.”

Safford Superintendent Ken VanWinkle said he has had a positive reaction from the crisis team’s efforts.

“I’ve had a few comments brought back to me from those who visited with the crisis team who were so appreciative that they were there,” he said. “This is something you can’t plan on. It’s just something that you have to respond.”

Dunkerson said his team still had members at Safford High School on Tuesday following Monday’s incident and will have them at the schools as needed.

“As the realization happens, some kids may not have a reaction the first day,” he said. “It brings up a lot of what they may have experienced as well . . . Grief isn’t necessarily just the incident that happened, it can bring up other issues for you.”

The crisis team began in 1997 and has received training from Dr. John Dudley, a national speaker and published author who has trained more than 7,000 school crisis teams throughout the nation and has helped schools respond to more than 3,000 student and teacher deaths.

For those in need to speak with a counselor or just someone to listen, they can text “TEEN” to 839863 to speak with someone. During school hours the number is run by counselors who oversee teens who answer the calls.

Other help numbers include the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, the Veterans Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 and the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.


This meme was posted on social media after the second Safford High School student suicide this week.