FRISCO — The teenager’s first message arrived late-morning the Thursday before winter break.
At Frisco ISD’s Ashley Elementary School, assistant principal Jess Johnson and counselor Laurie Ortel were in principal Kim Frankson’s office for a weekly meeting when Frankson’s phone lit up with a new notification.
Since the beginning of the school year when the district launched STOPit, an app that allows students and parents to send anonymous reports of bullying or school threats, administrators at Ashley Elementary had not received any notifications.
Now, Frankson was reading a lengthy report aloud as Johnson followed along on her own phone.
It was from a student who had been bullied. She gave her name. The teenager threatened to kill herself, and even gave a date for when she planned to do it.
Right away, the trio knew something wasn’t right. They know every child at Ashley Elementary, and this was not one of their students, nor were any of the bullies named in the message.
Frankson went to her computer to look up the students enrolled at other Frisco campuses. No results.
“Hi, we’re very concerned about you and want to help,” Johnson typed in the app. “Can you tell me your name and what school do you go to?”
The teenager responded immediately. Frankson searched the name of the school on Google and found a result in Waynesboro, Va., about a half-hour west of Charlottesville.
“Is that in Texas?” Johnson asked. No.
“Okay, are you at school today?” No.
Almost 1,200 miles away, a student was in need. Frankson, Johnson and Ortel pushed everything else aside to help her.
“We didn’t know her,” Ortel said this week, “but in that moment, she became ours.”
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When students or parents first log on to STOPit, they must enter an access code unique to their school. Every week, Frankson sends the code for Ashley Elementary to parents in a weekly email newsletter.
Makers of the app and Frisco ISD officials are unsure how the student in Virginia managed to message the Ashley Elementary administrators. Maybe she mistyped her own school’s code. Maybe she has some unknown connection to Frisco and was able to learn the school’s code. Frisco ISD officials declined to release the girl’s name due to privacy concerns.
Either way, the administrators say it was fortuitous that they happened to be near their phones when this unexpected message arrived.
“I don’t know who she would’ve reached out to,” Frankson said.
After alerting district officials, they moved down the hall to Johnson’s office, closed the door and told office staff they were not to be interrupted. They called the Frisco ISD district office, where more administrators stood by on a speakerphone to offer guidance as Johnson continued to message the student.
Johnson told her she was an administrator in Texas, that she wanted to find a way to help. She asked for more details about the teenager, like what grade she was in.
She found out the student was already on winter break, that no one from her school would have received the app’s message if it had gone to the right school.
Meanwhile, Frankson and Ortel began calling and emailing everyone they could find associated with the school in Virginia. The district’s superintendent, assistant superintendent, principals, teachers, even athletics coaches. No one responded.
Then, messaging by the student suddenly stopped. Johnson kept sending questions but was getting no response.
“Are you still there?” Johnson asked.
Yes, the teen finally responded. Unfortunately.
Frankson decided to call police dispatch in Waynesboro, who passed her information to Officer Alison Willis. The Frisco administrators shared what little information they had with the officer, including the student’s name.
At 12:12 p.m., the teenager stopped messaging again. Johnson continued asking questions, trying to get the student to respond.
“Thank you for finding a way to reach out.” Nothing.
“I’m here to listen and I want to help you!” Nothing.
“We can work it out. Things will get better.” Nothing.
At 12:21, another update. Johnson opened the app.
“She just told me she took pills,” Johnson said aloud.
Frankson called Willis again. The teenager was in danger. The officer needed to find her immediately.
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Ten long minutes crawled by like hours.
The student wasn’t responding on the app, and there was no word from Willis or anyone in Waynesboro.
Just after 12:30 p.m., some 45 minutes after the first message arrived, Frankson’s phone rang with an out-of-town area code.
“I’ve got her,” Willis said on the other end of the phone. “She’s safe.”
The officer had reached the student at home and was taking her to the hospital. Willis said the teen wouldn’t be responding to messages on the app but that she was OK.
The trio wiped away tears as they closed their laptops and put away their phones.
“Oh, it still gives me chills,” Frankson said this week.
“I just got home and it felt like I’d run a marathon,” Johnson said.
“It was like the biggest weight was lifted off of us,” Ortel said. “We were moving so fast before that, when we found out she was OK it was such a relief.”
They didn’t tell the other teachers or front office staff about the incident, instead quietly discussing it among themselves in the weeks since.
Corey McClendon, the district’s chief student services officer, praised Ashley Elementary administrators at a recent district board meeting, but the other teachers didn’t know about what happened in Johnson’s office that Thursday in December until this week.
“Implementing a program like that potentially saved a young lady’s life that day,” McClendon said at the board meeting. “She contacted the right people.”
Still, hardly a day goes by when Frankson, Johnson and Ortel don’t think about the teenager in Virginia. They’ve heard from officials there that she’s still getting the help she needs, and are relieved.
“We want her to know we still care about her,” Frankson said. “I think about her every single day.”
Although administrators across Frisco ISD receive as many as five STOPit messages every day, Frankson, Johnson and Ortel have only received one — from the teenager who needed help a thousand miles away.
Here is a partial list of hotlines and websites that offer counseling and resources to help prevent suicide:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. Confidential online chat is also available at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
NorthStar/North Texas Behavioral Health Authority: 1201 Richardson Drive, Suite 270, Richardson, Texas 75080. The 24-hour crisis hotline is 1-866-260-8000, or go to www.ntbha.org.
The Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas: Call the 24-hour hotline at 214-828-1000 to speak to a trained counselor, or go to www.sccenter.org.
Dallas Metrocare Services: 1-877-283-2121
Grace and Brian Loncar Foundation: The Loncar family recently set up this foundation to help teenagers and families minimize loss and suffering from youth mental illness and suicide. www.graceloncarfoundation.org
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: Funds research and education programs and provides resources for survivors of suicide loss and people at risk. www.afsp.org.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: National grass-roots mental health organization for people and families affected by mental illness. Resources and information at www.nami.org.