PALMDALE – A community forum Wednesday evening to address questions and concerns following the suicide of Hillview Middle School student Nigel Hardy drew nearly 300 parents, school officials, and community members.
The Westside Union School District Community Forum featured a panel of speakers that included Hoffman Hospice Branch Director Roger Doyle; Palmdale Sheriff’s Station Captain Don Ford; Not in Our School Director Becki Cohn-Vargas; Hillview Middle School Principal Robert Garza; and Westside Union Superintendent Regina Rossall.
It was moderated by Lancaster School District Superintendent Dr. Michele Bowers.
“We can make a difference. It’s not just about the kids, it’s about all of us coming together as a community, so thank you for making the first step and being here,” Bowers told attendees.
The forum began with a brief moment of silence, and then each panelist addressed the crowd on various topics of concern, including school lock down procedures, grief, bullying and suicide prevention.
Captain Don Ford outlined the sequence of events on Monday, April 15 that ultimately led to the school lockdown. Nigel was reported missing around noon on April 15, and deputies were at Nigel’s home within eight minutes of the call, Ford said. He said deputies assessed the note found in Nigel’s bedroom, and while the note didn’t explicitly state that Nigel would commit suicide, it did leave the impression that suicide was a “distinct possibility.” While investigating the case, deputies discovered that Nigel had been in a previous altercation with another student, and Nigel had brought a knife to school that he had not used, which caused Nigel to be removed from the school, Ford said.
Once investigators learned of Nigel’s past history and discovered that a gun was missing from Nigel’s home, they consulted with Hillview school officials and a mutual decision was made to put the school on lockdown, Ford said, adding that 29 officers were dedicated to the incident. Further investigation revealed that Nigel was nowhere near the school from the time he went missing to the time he was discovered, but authorities couldn’t have known that at the time they put the school on lockdown, Ford said. Ford also admitted that the process for releasing students from the lockdown could have gone smoother.
“There are some things we need to work on and we’re working with the schools,” Ford said. “We realize the release took a lot longer than we would have liked, but our concern is always the safety of the children first.”
Hoffman Hospice Director Roger Doyle followed with a detailed discussion about grief, its common stages, and how parents and teachers can help children cope with loss, death and grief.
Not in Our School Director Becki Cohn-Vargas gave a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation on bullying, effective strategies to address bullying and intolerance, and how bullying correlates with suicide.
The American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (https://www.afsp.org/) provides valuable information on understanding, preventing and coping with suicide, Cohn-Vargas said.
Hillview Middle School Principal Robert Garza was emotional, even tearing up at times, as he explained the school lockdown and the services provided to his students in the wake of Nigel’s suicide.
“I know that many people called and said, ‘gosh, that was the most unorganized event I’ve ever seen,’” Garza said. “It’s not an event that I ever saw coming. What I guarantee you is that from this, I’ve worked very steadily with our Superintendent, Risk Manager, other principals… we’re going to get better at this.”
Garza admitted that mistakes may have been made, but he said school officials were working hard to set a positive tone for moving forward from the tragedy.
“There are things that we should have done better, we did not do better, we did not do good enough,” Garza said. “But from this experience, I expect our entire district and hopefully our neighboring districts to improve from our situation. It’s something we absolutely need to do.”
Westside Union School District Superintendent Regina Rossall encouraged parents and community members to get involved in the effort by joining committees.
“If you haven’t been part of safety committees at school before, maybe this is the time for you to step up and help us with that,” Rossall said.
About one hour into the forum, the panel addressed several submitted questions from the audience. Many of the questions focused on bullying. The panel also took live questions and comments from a few audience members.
All questions and answers from the forum will be posted at the Westside Union School District website at http://www.westside.k12.ca.us, Rossall said.
At the conclusion of the forum, audience members gave Hillview Middle School Principal Robert Garza a standing ovation.
“I was very happy and pleased with the tone of the forum,” said Sandy Corrales-Eneix, Field Representative for Assemblymember Steve Fox. “I thought the panelists were very transparent. They had to admit that maybe they took some steps that they would change the next time around, so I think that gave the forum attendees a sense that somebody was taking responsibility… we have to remember that what happened to Nigel Hardy didn’t just happen at Hillview Middle School, it didn’t just happen in the Westside Union School District, this is an issue that has affected the entire community,” Corrales-Eneix continued.
Previous related stories: