Early on the afternoon of April 20, 2020, half a dozen teenage boys drove to a trailhead just east of Breckenridge. They hiked up a hill and formed a ramp out of the sticky spring snow, carefully etching their friend’s name into the front of their creation: T-O-B-Y. Then they strapped on their snowboards and took turns launching off the jump, soaring up to 20 feet in the air before returning to the earth. Summit County public health orders at the time discouraged such a gathering, but the boys, who hadn’t seen each other in weeks, were hurting. They stayed for five hours, releasing their grief in primal screams each time they took off: “This one’s for Toby!”
Toby Gard was a second-generation Breckenridge boy. His grandfather, Bill Tinker, had founded a well-known local electric company; his mom, Heather, spent part of her childhood living in an 1800s mining cabin up Browns Gulch. Toby fit the stereotypical mountain kid mold: He was a gifted athlete who played five sports, made the honor roll, and had charming dimples. He competed hard and suffered three concussions playing hockey by the time he was 13. “The third was a doozy,” Heather says. “He knew his first name but not his last. He was fully in retrograde amnesia.”
That third concussion ended his hockey career, but he had been looking forward to the 2020 lacrosse season at Summit High School before it was canceled as a result of the pandemic. Stuck at home, Toby began to rebel more than a usual teen might. He snuck out late at night to drink, vape, and smoke marijuana concentrates. He argued with his mom and dad. They told him the pandemic would be over soon, but it didn’t ease his anxiety. “He said to us many times, ‘I’ve got to get out of here,’ ” Heather says. “ ‘This is really not good for me. I can’t handle this isolation. I need to be with my friends.’ ” Heather asked him if he wanted to see a therapist, but Toby demurred.
In the early hours of April 20, sleep-deprived from sneaking out that night, he argued with his parents over the use of his phone. He did not want to give it up when he went to bed. “You don’t know what you’re doing to me,” he said repeatedly.
As he and his mother stood in his room, “He said, ‘Mom, I just don’t know what to do,’ ” Heather recalls. She hugged her son. “I didn’t know to ask him if he was feeling suicidal. I didn’t know to ask him to clarify. He had started to calm down.” Heather left his room and went to take a bath. By the time she got out of the tub, Toby was gone. He was 16.
Foster Krueger sat alone in his bedroom on Frisco’s Main Street, sobbing. He had just found out that Toby, his childhood friend and former hockey teammate, had died by suicide in Breckenridge. Krueger had seen Toby two months earlier, while the boys were volunteering at a pond hockey tournament in Silverthorne. After their shifts they stayed on the ice. “He gave me some tips on shooting, because he was always way better than I was,” Krueger says. “We were just passing and skating around, having fun. He was smiling. I couldn’t see hurt in his eyes.”
In the time after that carefree day, however, Toby had struggled. The early weeks of the COVID-19 shutdown severed his ties to school, friends, and sports, a void that his mother believes was at least 50 percent responsible for his death.
Even before Toby died, area therapists worried about the dangers of isolating adolescents. Casey Wolfington, the community behavioral health director at Vail Health, compared the idea with placing a newborn in a room by itself and not touching it or feeding it. “I said over and over: ‘We cannot lock them up,’ ” says Stacy Smith, a Frisco-based counselor who runs a nonprofit for grieving kids called Club Forget Me Not. “Teenagers are social beasts by nature—they need each other. We lost sight of the fact that they need more than adults or young children do. And they need it differently. Arguably this happened everywhere; rates of teen depression and anxiety skyrocketed across the United States.”
Heather, who then was a full-time substitute elementary teacher for Summit School District, called the principal at her school at 6 a.m. on April 21, informing her that her son had died. The principal shared the news with the district, then called Heather back later that morning: Social media chatter among students suggested there may have been a suicide pact among multiple kids.
That same morning, the Gards met with Smith, whose work often involves death and dying and who is sometimes asked by the coroner to assist with families affected by youth suicide. She and Heather also knew each other personally. Smith gathered information about Toby’s social circle in an effort to begin identifying anyone who might need help—and to discern whether there actually was a pact. Other clinicians and volunteers did the same. Names of at-risk kids poured into an anonymous crisis reporting line, Safe2Tell, as well as to a wide network of community members; they in turn relayed the information to law enforcement and co-responder units, who visited homes around the county. “It was to the point where police officers were like, This is not normally in our realm,” Smith says. “But they wanted to prevent another suicide.”
In the days after Toby’s death, rumors about a pact spread. There were no names, just numbers of how many might be involved. “At one point I heard up to six,” Krueger, then a junior at Summit High, recalls. “And then four, three. Nobody ever said why. I was scared. I was kind of waiting to hear another name, to be honest.”
Just after noon on April 29, that name came. Students and parents received an email with the subject line, “Important News from Summit High School.” “It is with a heavy heart that we have learned about the passing of Christopher Darst, a 9th Grader. We continue to live through difficult times during this COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of life is absolutely devastating to our families and learning community.”
With two Summit High students dying by suicide in nine days, grief mixed with fear in households throughout the county. Local mental health professionals struggled to respond. “I can remember being on four different calls at the same time, switching between lines,” says Lieutenant Daric Gutzwiller, who oversees the Sheriff’s Office’s co-responder unit, a team of deputies and mental health clinicians known as SMART (Systemwide Mental Assessment Response Team). Summit High counselors, four of whom serve a student body of 960, couldn’t meet their students at school because the building was closed as a result of the pandemic. So they stood in driveways and listened while the kids stood on their porches and talked.
Teachers who had established close relationships with their students leaned on them for information. “The kids would tell me, straight up, that they wanted to kill themselves,” says Caroline Hesford, the school’s choir, drama, and piano teacher. “I would call the school counselors. That probably happened with five or six kids in a month. Some of them would get upset that I had said something, but I’m like, Wouldn’t you rather me say something than you not be here? And then we’d have those conversations later.”
Smith and Gutzwiller say they found no evidence of a pact, which is defined by psychologists as an agreement among multiple people to end their lives together, or separately at coordinated times. But Heather Gard isn’t so sure. She says a third boy who attempted suicide multiple times told someone there had been an agreement among several kids. The boy’s mother learned of the information and later told Heather while dropping off a meal at her home.
A third death never came, however, and many who were involved later pointed to the coordinated effort among Summit County’s first-response network, as well as public and private mental health workers, for keeping kids alive. “They were the most terrifying months of my life,” says Jen McAtamney, who is the executive director of the Summit County–based mental health nonprofit Building Hope and whose daughter, then a senior, had suffered from depression. “You live every moment scared that if you let them out of your sight something bad is going to happen, but at the same time you know you have to let them out of your sight because you can’t keep them strapped to your side.”
Nine people died by suicide in Summit County last year—each of them after the pandemic began. Not long ago, that would have qualified as historic. From 1993 to 2002, Summit averaged 3.6 suicides per year, with a high of six. But over the past decade, the average has jumped to 8.2. In a sign of how dire things have gotten, the nine suicides in 2020 marked only Summit’s fifth-highest total of the past seven years. Summit’s 10-year suicide rate of 27 per 100,000 people is almost double the national average of 14.
Stacy Smith remembers sitting in a meeting of Summit County leaders 17 or 18 years ago, early in her career as a private practitioner. She wanted to address the region’s growing suicide rate. “We were having a big discussion about what is the problem and where are the holes in supporting our community,” Smith recalls. “I raised my hand and said, ‘Why don’t we publicize this so people are aware?’ I don’t remember who, but someone said something along the lines of, Because we don’t want our community and our visitors to know what’s going on. That was a defining moment for me. It changed who I am as a clinician.”
Times have changed, to a degree, from those days; much of that shift began with the 2017 founding of Building Hope, and the private donations and tax-based funding that pays for its therapy sessions. But, according to Smith, prevention efforts are hampered by power struggles behind the scenes, often between clinicians and decision-makers. “Everybody wants the same thing when you bring them to the table. They want the community cared for,” Smith says. “But we also piss on our territory, and we don’t want anyone stepping into it.”
As spring turned into summer, Krueger and his friends started meeting to play catch or throw a Frisbee. They’d hike into the mountains or drive up a dirt road to camp for the night. They craved interaction. The virus seemed like less of a threat than the consequences of not being together—especially whenever Toby’s or Christopher’s name came up.
With the new school year looming, the question of whether students would be able to attend in person or be limited to “Zoom school” was front of mind for nearly everyone. Heather showed up at multiple school board meetings to comment as a mother and relived watching her son “pull away” during the lockdown. “We cannot discount,” she said at the July 30 meeting, “how devastating the mental health problem is.”
The high school started with a hybrid schedule that included two days in person, staggered by last name, which was more than a lot of school districts around the state were offering. “Obviously, students were complaining about some stuff, but most were just appreciating that we got to be back in school,” Krueger says. “We were glad we got to see at least some friends two days a week.”
Teenage parties came back, too. On the night of Saturday, October 17, 2020, Krueger and about two dozen of his friends attended a birthday party hosted by a senior, at a time when the limit for gatherings was 10. He had shared a hotel room with a hockey teammate not long before the party, and, unbeknownst to him, the teammate had recently been exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Krueger doesn’t know if he contracted the virus from his teammate or someone at the party, but he tested positive early the following week. Because of lags in contact tracing, he announced his result on Snapchat so that anyone who was at the party could get tested immediately.
Nine kids who were at the gathering eventually tested positive, and Summit Public Health reported 22 cases among high school students that week. The following Sunday, Summit High announced in-person learning had been suspended until November 9. Krueger, who’d been elected Summit High’s student-body president, and his friends took criticism from all angles. Members of the public blamed them for risking the county’s ski season and, in turn, its tourism-based economy.
Krueger stayed in his room for two weeks, relying on video calls with his quarantined friends and a daily regimen of 150 sit-ups and push-ups to keep him upbeat. One night he and his best friend stayed on a call long after others had logged off. More than a year earlier, the same friend had confided to Krueger that he struggled with mental health issues. Now, he said, he’d been depressed again. Krueger’s antennae shot up, especially given the potential return to virtual learning through the holidays because of rising case numbers across the county. If the school went fully remote, his friend said, he might not do well. “In that moment, I was like, Oh, my God, there’s going to be another situation here,” Krueger says. “And it might be my best friend next.”
Six days after Heather Gard anchored a widely viewed webinar titled Voice of a Grieving Mother: I lost my son to suicide, Krueger spoke at the Summit Board of Education meeting and made a case to continue the current hybrid learning model. The district announced on November 20 that it would go to full-time virtual learning through the holidays. That afternoon, Krueger emailed then district superintendent Marion Smith Jr., begging to stay in person. He cited suicide rates and transmission patterns and brought up Christopher and Toby by name. “Is it worth it to put us at risk of suicide simply to stop the spread of a disease that isn’t spreading at the high school? …This email is a plea on behalf of myself and the student body.” The superintendent replied two days later, writing in part: “In the end, it’s about following data and making leadership decisions (whether favorable or not) that center the safety and health of all 3,200 SSD scholars and 500+ staff, while providing continued learning opportunities.”
On November 21, Krueger emailed a survey to 111 Summit High teachers and staff. Among other things, he asked if they felt safe at school, whether they’d rather be in person or virtual, and if they supported the idea of remaining on a hybrid schedule. He got about 20 responses.
Some members of the school staff were not pleased with Krueger’s efforts. A teacher stopped him in the hallway: “He told me I needed to work on writing better emails to my superiors,” Krueger says. Principal Tim Ridder approached him as class was ending one day, explained why the district had decided to go fully remote, and asked him why he’d sent the survey. Krueger replied, “I think we need to keep my peers in school.”
The noise Krueger was making began to echo through the community. Some supported his chutzpah, while others ridiculed him, offended he would challenge the district’s rationale. “It felt like I had a target on my back for the next couple of weeks, and I didn’t really know why,” Krueger says. Ridder says he may have been irritated by Krueger’s efforts but “that just had to do more with being exhausted in the moment.”
Hesford, the Summit High music teacher, applauded Krueger’s persistence, which later included a change.org petition to alter the weekly school schedule that got about 240 signatures. “I felt it was necessary,” Hesford says. “There were questions being asked that needed to be asked, that I felt like weren’t being asked from other places. The kids needed a spokesperson to represent what they were feeling. The adults can have their say—the teachers, district leadership, public health. But who was asking the kids? Foster was. Our kids need to have a voice.”
District mental and physical health coordinator Elizabeth Edgar says the decision to go remote was unavoidable. “The wheels were coming off with COVID; we had a couple of spikes. It’s a difficult balancing of priorities. Was mental health discussed? Absolutely.”
After Toby’s and Christopher’s deaths, some residents questioned the county’s formula for dealing with the pandemic and its fallout. “I had a conversation with a person who was one of the direct people who made the decision to shut the county down,” Stacy Smith says, “and that person flat-out said to me, ‘Is it my fault these kids are dead?’ And I said, ‘It’s not your fault these kids are dead, but the circumstances certainly led to their deaths.’ ”
Perhaps that was the case for Toby. But the correlation was more complicated for Christopher, whose family chose to remain out of public view for more than a year. One evening this past spring, however, his mother, Karen Darst, agreed to talk about Christopher at their home in Copper Mountain. West Tenmile Creek rushed by their back window as Karen recalled moving to Summit County from Seattle when Christopher was two. He’d grown into a grinning blond boy who was, his mother says, “off-the-charts smart.” He scored in the elite tier of standardized tests in every subject, and he was kind. “He was the first to give somebody a hug,” Karen says.
Christopher had been bullied since the fifth grade, his mom says, but for years he brushed it off. “He started caring when he got to high school,” Karen says. “He started to like girls, and it started to matter to him what people said and how they treated him.” Christopher was small for a freshman. He wore glasses and ran cross-country. He and Toby knew each other from middle school and were in the same band and math classes at Summit High. But while Toby was bigger and more plugged in socially, Christopher suffered the same abuse he had in the past.
In separate incidents, “he was pushed to the ground, they broke his glasses, they cut a hole in his cross-country sweatshirt,” his mother says. “I don’t know who they were. It was mostly one class, kids in his grade.” Christopher lied to his mother about how his glasses had been broken and how his shirt had been ripped. His parents became aware of the bullying at the end of October 2019. Christopher was one of four boys in his class who were being bullied, according to another victim’s mother, who later reported the bullying to Summit High administrators. The school’s principal, Ridder, declined to comment on the bullying allegations, saying, “I’m not at liberty to talk about any of that.”
In late November, someone called the Safe2Tell hotline about Christopher. A team from the county showed up to perform a safety check at 11 o’clock at night. During the team’s visit, Karen was horrified to find cuts up and down her son’s forearms.
She took him to the high school’s school-based health center soon after and looked into transferring him to the Peak School, a small private school in Frisco. “Then, over Christmas break, he was like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to go there. I want to stay with my friends,’ ” Karen recalls. Soon, after starting school again, he said, “Mom, I wish you wouldn’t talk about how smart I am.” His mother asked him why, suspecting it had something to do with the bullying. “Because I’m not,” he said. “I’m not smart at all.”
At the end of January, Karen learned her son was having suicidal ideation and took him to the Family & Intercultural Resource Center in Silverthorne. A staffer recommended she check him into West Springs Hospital, an inpatient group facility in Grand Junction. After a week there, he came home and returned to school. One week later, he attempted suicide. Christopher went back to West Springs for another four days. His parents brought him home again—and almost immediately, on March 13, Summit’s schools shut down because of the pandemic.
An unexpected turn occurred in Christopher’s demeanor. “The minute school was out, it was like a light bulb turned back on, and he was suddenly himself again,” Karen says. “He caught up on all of his schoolwork. He was taking his cat for walks, making bread, skinning up the mountain. Day by day, it was better and better and better.” Instead of feeling stifled by isolation, Karen says, “COVID was saving Christopher. One hundred percent.”
Then Toby died. Christopher was devastated. He wept at home the next morning, heartbroken that he hadn’t been able to say goodbye to his friend. Seven days later, on the night of Tuesday, April 28, Christopher talked to his parents about their shared plans for the next day, then went to bed. He died by suicide early the next morning. He had just turned 15.
According to the National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement, for every child who dies by suicide, several hundred more attempt it. More than one of every six high school students has seriously considered suicide, and approximately one of every seven has made a plan.
Still, school districts are almost always reluctant to talk about the issue, let alone release pertinent data. For this story, Summit School District spokesperson Mikki Grebetz said the district could not even confirm “multiple student deaths.” Among those who declined interview requests were the district’s Board of Education president, Kate Hudnut; then superintendent Marion Smith Jr.; and student support services director Ellen Clark, who oversees mental health care services.
“If we had an accurate picture of kids on the attempt side and completion side—if [schools] reported on age, gender, race and ethnicity, and geography—it’s going to give us a clearer picture of what is happening, and we can allocate resources to the real touch points,” says Rick Padilla, suicide prevention administrator for the City of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Padilla lost his son Jack to suicide in February 2019, when Jack was 15. Jack had been bullied, Padilla says, and was one of five Cherry Creek School District students to die by suicide in a span of six months. “I think CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] should be demanding that information. Your kids are spending eight hours a day at a school with teachers and coaches. Where is it embedded legislatively that gives them the authority to not report this type of data?”
The larger problem is that no one aggregates that data. County coroners can provide suicide statistics, but no agency tracks youth suicide attempts or breaks them down by demographic. Given the range of health care options—private facilities, hospitals, public health centers—that treat teens in crisis, a school may be better positioned than other organizations to collect that information.
Statistics or no statistics, Smith believes that Summit School District’s resistance to talking about Toby’s and Christopher’s deaths more directly reflects a long-standing societal issue. “Ultimately, nobody wants to know that somebody is struggling with mental health, or that somebody has died by suicide,” she says. “Somebody dies of cancer, you’ve got all your best friends supporting you. Somebody dies by suicide, everybody’s like, That’s too real. I don’t want to be around that, because that could happen to somebody I know. And it breaks my heart.”
When Smith was asked to assist with school district communications after Toby’s death, she says she was told the district was not comfortable using the word “suicide” in the announcement. She presented multiple training sessions via Zoom to parents—about signs to look for that suggest suicidal ideation and how to talk to your kids about suicide—including one the night that Christopher died. “I was asked by an administrator at the high school to not use the word ‘suicide’ in all of those Zooms,” Smith says, even though she had Heather Gard’s permission to refer to Toby’s death as a suicide. She used it anyway. “You have to use the word ‘suicide,’ ” Smith says, “because these are underdeveloped brains that are impulsive, and if you say ‘This can kill you,’ then you get kids saying, ‘What? I can die by this?’ We often say ‘tragically passed away,’ but we need to use the word ‘dead.’ ”
Elizabeth Edgar, the district’s mental and physical health coordinator, says there is no policy against using “suicide” in conversation or communication, as long as the family consents. “I’ve never been in any district setting where someone’s like, Don’t talk about that,” Edgar says. Ridder, Summit High’s principal, declined to comment on the matter.
The more important aspect of Summit High’s response, Ridder says, was to “make sure we support the heck out of everybody around” the deaths and “don’t fixate on loss, but fixate on what our strengths are.” He adds, “The essence of suicide is that it’s a choice by that person, which makes it impossible to completely control.”
Heather Gard, meanwhile, has been pushing for change of her own. “I want the school to realize we’re too small a district not to acknowledge this,” she says. “I’m not just fighting because I want my kid remembered. I’m fighting because I want those kids to feel validated. I want us to be what we say we’re being to the community—trauma informed and trauma responsive.”
Summit High School made it through the final five months of the 2020-’21 school year relatively unscathed, but the mental health crisis in the county persisted. Building Hope’s therapy scholarship requests among 12- to 18-year-olds remained up 30 percent over 2020 through the first half of 2021. Younger students also struggled with the isolation caused by the pandemic. “Every week we were trying to get counseling and therapy support for our families and kids, and there was no one available,” says former Breckenridge Elementary principal Khristian Brace, who resigned at the end of the school year to begin a three-year graduate program in counseling. Brace had worked in education for 17 years; now she wants to treat Summit County’s teens. “Even for people who can pay,” Brace says, “there are not enough mental health providers in our community.”
On May 25, Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora held a press conference to declare a “pediatric mental health state of emergency”—the first in the hospital’s 117-year history. Panelists said three or four kids a week were attempting suicide and being transported to the hospital by ambulances. There were too few inpatient psychiatric beds. Families were seeking care out of state.
Some, like Rick Padilla, who spearheaded a statewide anti-bullying law that the Colorado Legislature passed this year, are trying to change the system. Summit receives $2 million a year via tax dollars and private donations for therapy scholarships, but county commissioner Tamara Pogue says the amount is not even close to enough to treat higher-level problems. “There are a lot of gaps in our system,” Pogue says. “Now you’ve added a lot more acuity and need that none of us could’ve anticipated, so the system is cracking at the seams in a more visible way than it was prior to the pandemic. There is simply not enough funding to effectively treat behavioral health and mental health in this community.”
Substantive changes are taking place at Summit High School, though. This fall, the school will adopt Sources of Strength, a research-based, peer-to-peer suicide prevention program designed to “change unhealthy norms and culture.” As Gard says, “You can train parents and teachers all day, but if we don’t get the tools in the hands of the kids, we’re going to lose. ” Summit School District also is adopting a new, comprehensive suicide procedure for staff that will be included in the district’s emergency operations protocol, should a death by suicide occur.
Foster Krueger graduated from Summit High this past spring and has enrolled at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; he will join his older sister there this month. His mother asked him during the college application process if he had mentioned his efforts to challenge the district and superintendent in the name of mental health. No, he told her, because they didn’t work.
Months later, nearing the end of a grueling senior year, his feelings had changed. He’d grown in a way he hadn’t realized at the time. “It was definitely a learning experience, going in thinking, I’m right, I’m going to make a change, then coming out with my tail between my legs,” he says. “But it was still important to me that I tried, because it’s better to try than sit and watch.”
Getting Help: If you are, or a loved one is, experiencing an acute mental health crisis, Colorado Crisis Services has a hotline where trained professionals can talk you through an emergency. Call 1-844-493-8255 or text TALK to 38255.