The past couple of weeks have been daunting, so say the least. After 27 years in the trenches of teen mental health, motivation and suicide prevention – I’d have to say that two recent school visits have been among the hardest I have ever encountered. You can read about one of them, my Alaska trip, HERE.
And then there was Bay Port High School in Howard, Wisconsin – a suburb of Green Bay.
My assistant, Betty, is getting harassing calls on out 800 number to the point that we had to shut down the phones. Many of these calls are threats of suicide, with students saying that I am to blame. Really? I am a suicide prevention and crisis intervention expert and have never heard or seen anything like this over the course of my career.
To any of the students who were uncomfortable with my message or the graphic nature of my stories, I offer my sincere apologies. I have never had complaints about this material, but if anybody was uncomfortable, I need to address this – and I take these things very seriously.
I take great responsibility for my work and for my advocacy for mental health. This is very personal for me and it’s a part of who I am.
I’d also like to apologize to the community for the mixed messages and the confusion since my visit, and I am quite confused myself. I have been receiving nasty messages from a select few, including some teachers – but this is offset by hundreds of supportive comments, some apologetic for the school district.
Many of you have asked for my side of the story and this VIDEO and blog post will be my final communication about this. I need to move forward. You can visit my WEB SITE and read 27 years’ worth of testimonials and reference letters or watch hundreds of my videos on YouTube.
This will be a long read, but I need to defend my position and, as you will see, myself. Although the overwhelming majority of my visit was top-notch, I cannot allow the actions of the few to overshadow an otherwise great day with awesome students and staff.
Allow me to give my point of view…
Much of the reason we are having this discussion in the first place is the fact that everybody enjoys rights and privileges today, but very few seem to honor obligations or live up to their responsibilities. We are losing control, and there is much talk about how to reverse this trend – but much of my message centers on these very issues.
I can’t tell you that I mastered these things easily, but over the years I have “taken my own medicine.” Today I pride myself on being transparent, authentic and present. I expect all adults, especially those who work with children, to stand up and do what’s right. After all, isn’t this the message we are trying to send to the young people in our charge?
I will own what I might have done wrong at Bay Port High School, and I always strive to do better.
MY CAREER IS AN OPEN BOOK
Two years ago, I was contacted by the family of a student who made the “forever decision.” We had a wonderful, heartfelt conversation and this got the ball rolling.
My friends, I am deeply sorry. Please know that I didn’t intend to come across as insensitive. My talk was not meant to address any of the individual situations or names associated with the losses experienced by the community. I don’t know what your expectations were, but I am sorry.
For two years, your school district did extensive research to find the message they wanted to share, and they decided to hire me. I was hired to speak at both Bay Port High School and Bay View Middle School. I chose to cancel the middle school presentation.
As with every event for which I am contracted, we have a process – a signed contract, pre-program Questionnaire, letter templates for teachers, parents and teens along with all of my website information about my message. Everything about me and my message if there for everyone to see – and anybody can look up and gather as much information as they choose.
When I come to an event, I know I am the guest – but I consider myself a part of the staff, kind of like a coach. I want to make an impact and plant seeds, provide hope, give encouragement and offer support. By being unafraid to share my story, I hope to encourage others to tell theirs. I want everybody to know that life is real. We will all, without exception, experience ups and downs – but ultimately, we are responsible for our decisions and for the direction our lives are to take.
THE DAY BEGINS
On day of the event, I arrived at 7:15 a.m. for the meet-and-greet – also a standard part of my presentations, which normally includes district administrators, faculty, staff and whomever else would like to attend. Usually, a school resource officer and school psychologist are also on hand. The meet and greet is on top of the pre-program questionnaire I mentioned. This is important because it familiarizes me with the school community and what is expected of me. We never got it back from this particular high school.
My first impression after walking into the high school was how beautiful it was, and the fact that the school was a strong supporter of our military resonated with me. I enjoyed taking in the energy as students left their cars and walked into the building. I can pick up on a school climate within minutes of being on property, and in this case I was very impressed.
The meeting was fun, and I loved the energy and insight. I asked the questions I always ask to make sure everybody was on the same page. One of these questions was, “What are your expectations at the end of the day?”
The answer was that the superintendent saw the need for everybody to start talking about mental health – and that they wanted to start the conversation. I was happy to hear that. “Excellent. I get it. Let’s do it!”
My point of contact was Angela Buchenauer, Associate Director of Pupil Services. I got the honor to work closely with the school’s social worker, Michelle Dahlke. Both ladies were gracious and kind. They told me about how much research they had done and how happy they were that I was there. I was excited and honored.
I thought I had an amazing visit to Bay Port High School. The whole day and evening were great. I’m not exactly sure what happened, and I am done trying to figure it all out.
I do have a question, though:
In his letter to parents after my visit, Damian LaCroix, superintendent of the Howard-Suamico School District, had this to say:
“I am writing to extend an apology for the presentation at Bay Port High School yesterday which did not reflect our high expectations for a message on this topic. We hold all adults that interact with our students to a high standard.”
Here’s the thing: I was still allowed to stay on campus for one-on-ones and to meet with counselors. Why did I get to roam the building with no visitor’s pass, no staff escort – and be privy to some of the issues and situations going on at Bay Port High School? The superintendent issued an apology yet allowed me to continue working with students and staff, including a presentation to parents and area educators later that evening.
This doesn’t make sense.
MY APPROACH TO ASSEMBLIES
I spoke to two thousand students at the assembly, and after this, roughly 200 kids came up to shake my hand, thank me for my service (I am a Marine) or give me a hug. Some bought a “TAKE TIME TO THINK” bracelet. Others told me their stories or told me that they wanted to talk.
This was the same talk I give at nearly every high school assembly. I have been doing this for 27 years. My focus is teen motivation and teen mental health. I also work with mental health professionals and organizations. I am a suicide prevention and crisis intervention expert. It’s all online.
My website clearly states that I am a PG-13 speaker, and goes on to say that I am not a rainbow-unicorn-skittles-Mickey Mouse speaker. I am real. I talk about real life and real issues. I speak from the heart. Your school administration knew this. I would not have come if this was not what you were looking for. I did what I do every time I speak.
If my talk is too graphic or inappropriate, I would have heard this a long time ago. I wouldn’t be speaking in education, believe me. I am only as good as those that have helped me craft my message over many years.
I heard that I made some people uncomfortable. I bet I did. Mental health isn’t something everyone lives with, and it isn’t a topic that people want to talk about. I want to make people uncomfortable. If we are going to start a conversation about mental health and teen suicide, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable and talking about issues we shouldn’t be avoiding.
What exactly did everyone expect? Did the school administrators even send my letter to teachers, students and parents?
After 27 years and more than 4000 school programs, of course there will be negative reviews, comments and posts.
If I didn’t expect to see anything negative after so long, I’d me more concerned.
Your school district spent two years doing their research. They knew I appeared as “The Unlikely Life Coach” on MTV’s MADE. They also know that I am a Marine. I tell it like it is.
During the assembly, I referenced what I called the “pink elephant” – the losses experienced by the school community over the past couple of years – including the recent loss of a beloved teacher and coach. I said that my intention was not to be insensitive – but I wasn’t there to be talking about this. If I did, I’d be bringing up emotions of the past – and that would not be responsible with two thousand people packed into the gym.
I told the kids that, regardless of what they thought they were in the gym for that morning – mental health, suicide prevention, motivation, drugs and alcohol – my talk was about life.
I would never speak at a school about these issues and just leave. I always commit to staying the whole day and being available for anyone who wants to talk. Today, our school communities are hurting. Teen mental health is the greatest healthcare crisis of our time and needs to be addressed – and I make it a point to be present for anybody who needs me.
I don’t speak at our students. I speak with them at their level with a combination of truth and humor that has been carefully planned out and strategized within the content of the message. If I can’t speak from my heart to theirs in a message “About Life,” then I can’t do this.
I understand that everyone has a story – and no matter what they are going through or where they are in their “here-and-now,” I need to connect with these kids and plant a seed that makes sense to all of them.
I told them that people either come and plant seeds or they pick the fruit – and that I was there to plant seeds. There are so many messages within the message itself, but I can’t control the message they were expecting or the message they heard. They had their phones. There were 2,000 students and staff. Where they listening or where they talking to their friends, or where they on their phones? I don’t know. I only control the message I was hired to give and it was the same message I deliver again and again – with the same mannerisms, humor and tone I deliver everywhere I go.
I made a point to let the students know that if any one of them felt triggered by any of this, they could walk out – and that there were counselors and staff who would have been happy to walk with them.
Yes, there was a very serious incident, and nobody knew about it until after it was handled. The rumors started flying around. I found out right away and made sure I was available, but it was already taken care of. The counselors and administration said it wasn’t my fault – that there was a conversation with an at-risk student and the student’s family, recommending that the individual should not attend the assembly because of what they had been going through.
This was actually a part of the process we talked about regarding how our schools protect both students and staff via the right policies and procedures. If this situation was not addressed, the outcome could have been very bad. I am proud of this student and the staff for how they handled it. We had a clear understanding of how quickly a situation can escalate into a crisis, and we talked about policies and procedures throughout the day.
I was in the counseling office and roaming the school all day, meeting one-on-one with counselors - showing them things to watch out for and what to do when these situations arise. We all thought the day went well, but I later heard that some teachers were sending out negative messages. At the time, though, I had no idea – and went about my business all day in that building without an escort.
As the school day was ending, I was talking to the school nurse as well as Angela and Michelle and was warned that teachers were planning on attacking me at an upcoming staff meeting. I think we were all surprised and shocked – and we ran the gamut of emotions from sadness and confusion to disappointment. Michelle and Angela were upset but I think not surprised by whom was sending the emails and the negative comments in the classrooms.
But I was also excited because I’m all for a meaningful conversation, and I wanted the staff and teachers to be heard. We need to have these conversations and I wanted to hear from them.
Teachers and school staff are some of the most influential people in the lives of our children, and I have the utmost respect for them. I am pro-education, and welcomed any and all concerns, questions or challenges. I devote my life and passion to advocating for teen mental health, suicide prevention and education. I do this work every day. I was ready for a great conversation.
Remember: The point of my visit was because the superintendent saw the need for everybody to start talking about teen mental health. This is a good thing – but only three teachers showed up. Two of them were very quiet. Nobody talked about what we heard was being shared in emails.
One teacher finally spoke up and said, “I think it’s wrong to have two thousand teens in a gym where nobody could get out. It should have been smaller groups.”
I don’t disagree, but that isn’t on me. I’m the guest. I’m sorry, but I do what I am contracted to do.
Here’s where it got a little crazy…
There were two young ladies after school who wanted to talk, and I said, “sure.” In reality, I wanted to leave after all of this – but if two young ladies wanted to talk, I didn’t want to turn them away. I never do – so with a counselor, we went and had a nice talk. These were lovely young ladies – very mature and well-spoken. Yes – I call our young ladies “beautiful” and our young men “handsome.” I have always done this.
I also give hugs, but I am very careful about how and when. Much of my message is about self-esteem, and I want our youth to know that I care about them no matter what. I want them to see in themselves what I see in them. They need love. They need support. They need to know that people care and that the trusted adults in their lives are worthy of that trust. If they don’t get those things when they need it, I want to make sure they get it when I am a part of their lives. This is what I have always done, and it was never an issue until Bay Port High School.
It seems like everybody has a loud voice on emails and in texts, but nobody wants to speak publicly. I have long ago determined that this is because they want to add to the problem – the drama – and not be a part of the solution. This goes to personal responsibility, and you would think that your teachers would stand up and say something in a forum where the issues could be addressed.
Is this my issue or theirs? We talked about that. I can’t fix what I don’t know about. If I don’t know, I can’t do anything.
I was, however, told by Angela that the district administration wanted me to tone it down at the planned presentation at the middle school the next day, yet they were still excited about the parents and community program scheduled the evening of the staff meeting.
The firestorm was going on at this point between teachers, students, parents and other parties.
I specifically asked what exactly they wanted me to tone down. I realize that a middle school message is different from a high school message, but I wanted them to tell me exactly what they meant. Why didn’t the district’s director of communications, Brian Nicol, call me directly and tell me about his concerns?
Angela wasn’t even sure of what was being asked or expected of me. I think they had put her in a tough position because the reviews from her daughter were different from what she was getting through district administration.
The way things were going, I wasn’t sure I wanted to speak at the middle school. I am contracted into 2021 to present at schools all over the country, including many in Wisconsin. I am hired to be myself. I wasn’t willing to change who I am or change my message into a lackluster talk that goes against what I promise to deliver. This was now about my reputation.
I told the group I was with that I needed to go to my car to process all of this, and that I would see them later at the parents and community night. I could tell that they were also disappointed and embarrassed about how things were going. But it wasn’t unexpected that some teachers would react the way they did, and I knew they weren’t surprised.
I called my attorney and confirmed that it would be OK to walk away right then and to not speak at Bay View Middle School in the morning. But I wasn’t going to cancel the evening program, and they didn’t want me to either. I’m glad I didn’t, and I am grateful for an amazing turnout of more than 400 people.
I told Angela and Michelle that I would not be speaking the next morning and that I had spoken to my attorney. I thought this decision was best in light of all of the drama. My heart was broken. Michelle was in tears, and I felt her pain and embarrassment. I spent an incredible day with Michelle and the counselors. They were absolutely amazing and I could see this was personally affecting her heart. She went from really excited to have me at Bay Port High School to this backlash. This is part of the problem. Everyone has a voice and rights, but nobody wants to use their voice in a proactive way and take responsibility.
I gave social worker Michelle a hug and cited the great conversations we had about policies and procedures that day and what we tried to accomplish. We smiled and left it at that.
Angela, the associate director of pupil services, also told me that the administration wanted me to speak the next day, but they wanted me to change things up.
“Angela – I can’t,” I said. “I can’t not be me. You hired me and knew everything.”
Angela said that this was also what she said to the administration, and that she would not make me do it. We had a nice professional talk and Angela was a rock star through all of this – but she was put in a position I didn’t think she needed to be put into. Difficult conversations need to happen. People need to speak up without hiding behind their titles and their desks. Angela handled her job in an upstanding manner, but I know she was conflicted personally.
I think the students should have been encouraged to have an open dialogue once they got back to their classes after the assembly – freely discussing what they heard and what their takeaways were from the message. This builds and strengthens the relationship between teachers/staff and students. Apparently, that didn’t happen in many classrooms.
I’m not even sure this happened at all…
Teachers were referring to me as a pedophile, homophobic and harassing. Really? One even called me a douchebag in front of the students. What message is that sending?
I am hired to be a part of the school culture, climate and spirit – and teachers totally ruined whatever message the kids heard. I was privy to what was being said and who was saying it. Wouldn’t this have been the best time to talk about everything – to give opinions, respect the opinions of others and perhaps debate what I was trying to convey?
Isn’t it a teacher’s job to teach young people first and the subject second? Let’s start the conversation and listen – facilitate and encourage opinions – and talk.
I am quite sure that not everybody hated me or thought I was inappropriate in any way – but what is a student to say if the teacher’s opinions are so strong that they feel they can’t speak up? This is disturbing, and I hope that the teachers in question are reprimanded and held accountable.
THE PARENT AND COMMUNITY PROGRAM
I struggled with my talk at the parent program because I knew I was now on a tight leash. They said they wanted me there, I was confused about why they were even allowing me to talk at all. It was very hard for me to get through it. My heart hurt, and I didn’t understand. I did my best because it matters to me and this is why I do what I do. I care. Maybe too much. I care deeply about making a positive difference and standing up for mental health issues, our counselors, teachers and families - and ultimately helping to our teens along their paths in life.
Part of the message I shared that night was that we need to be our own best advocates. If you have a question, ask the question. Have a growth mindset and look to build self-esteem, both in yourself and in others. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – and when asking someone how they are doing, try asking “How is your heart” instead.
The teachers could have gone back and said, “Okay, how is your heart, class?” That would have been an amazing way of opening discussion and adding to the value of the talk – and the investment the school community made to bring me in for two days.
AN UNFORTUNATE SITUATION
So - here we are on this Saturday and everything is still going crazy. I am still getting messages from students. Everything is still blowing up – from social media to the news media and from texts, calls and emails from parents.
My assistant, Betty, is trying to go about our business – telling me about schools and recent suicides, and I can’t do my job. I’ve never seen anything like this – and I was doing well until my family and my assistant got dragged into this. This vicious name-calling, personal attacks and accusations have deeply hurt my wife, my children, my parents and my assistant – and this has also affected my friends and supporters.
I’m being accused of sexual assault and sexual harassment during the time I was on the gymnasium floor, speaking to 2,000 students. This is WRONG and it is VERY SERIOUS.
One individual made a meme of me walking off a bridge and falling to my death with the caption, “Saturday we can all have a laugh.” You should see what parents are writing and hear what students are saying. It’s absolutely unbelievable. I have family in Appleton and a nephew growing up near your community, attending one of your competing schools. I am scared for him.
Why all this ruthlessness?
Again, we all have rights today, but nobody is talking about responsibilities. We are a broken society; we have broken families and we have too few answers. The truth should be embraced, but when someone steps up and tells the truth, we become outraged and indignant. Come on. This is a parenting issue. This is the problem today and what are we doing about it?
Betty is getting voicemails from students who say they have been triggered by my talk and now want to kill themselves. Some have obviously disguised their voices. You can’t do this to me and my work. I am absolutely appalled and disgusted. Because of this nonsense, we shut down our phones – meaning that nobody can reach out to us because of the actions of these people.
I have contacted the district and put this on them. Shame on you and you parents for your inappropriate, ignorant, and classless behavior about suicide and mental health.
You can watch any of my talks on YouTube, including my TEDx Talk, or read any of my books. It will be obvious that I take my work very seriously – and for those 10 or 15 people who bought by book, Teen Suicide: The WHY Behind America’s Suicide Epidemic from Amazon – thank you.
WILL AN APOLOGY EVEN CUT IT?
I want a full investigation into the sexual assault allegations and harassment. This is my professional reputation and these are some of the most severe and life-altering allegations that can be made. Not only does this affect me, but it also impacts my family, my staff, my friends, and my supporters. I want an apology from the school along with an admission that these allegations are untrue. I want the superintendent to send a letter of truth to parents. I also want an apology from Fox 11 News for the one-sided article they posted without getting my side of the story. That was totally irresponsible and unprofessional.
I want to thank the other media outlets in the area that called me and asked for my take on the situation. I appreciate your professionalism.
Superintendent Damian LaCroix said some things in a letter that I would like to discuss:
Mental health and wellness is an important and timely topic.
Sir, if these things are that important to you and your school community, why didn’t I see you at the evening program? Why weren’t you at the morning meet-and-greet? Why weren’t you at the school assembly? Your community has experienced loss. You had plenty of time to put this on your schedule.
I am writing to extend an apology for the presentation at Bay Port High School yesterday which did not reflect our high expectations for a message on this topic.
Sir, with all due respect, I asked what your expectations were. What exactly were they? Not all kids are dealing with mental issues. I addressed life, resiliency, mental health, suicide, attitude, choices and behavior. I talked about the importance of my mantra, TAKE TIME TO THINK, and so much more. I spoke from the heart. I was personal and real. I spoke to the students in an authentic tone and told the truth. I sprinkled in some humor, but I was respectful. My job is to connect, not to lecture.
Did you want a PowerPoint presentation with a dull lecture that would have been sure to bore the student body? They would have been on their phones the whole time. That would have hurt my reputation, and is the antithesis of what my marketing materials, testimonies and references reflect about my work.
How did I not meet your expectations? If this was a failure, I would have to say that somebody failed to do their research. My career is an open book.
We hold all adults that interact with our students to a high standard. While we recognize that some students and parents had a positive response, we received substantial student, parent, and staff feedback to inform our decision to cancel at Bay View today.
Sir, I cancelled Bay View – and if you want to start the conversation, then I challenge you to do the right thing and write another letter – an honest and transparent letter.
Ms. Angela Buchenauer, a wonderful and kind person, told me that you and Mr. Brian Nicol wanted me to speak at Bay View in the morning, but wanted me to tone it down. I am absolutely OK with making certain changes, but I couldn’t find out exactly what to tone down. I told Angela that I was going to think about it. I came back and told her that I couldn’t do it. She told me that she understood and that she wasn’t going to make me do something that I was uncomfortable with.
I am not sure where you cancelled this because nobody told me that you were cancelling it. I told them I wasn’t doing it.
If going to get this conversation going, I challenge you to stop trying to save face by making the school look good in the eyes of the community and your school board, and report exactly what happened.
Did some of your teachers fail you and your students when it came to a presentation about life that your district hired for the well-being of these students and the community? Yes.
If you felt the need to apologize to your parents and staff about me and the message, then WHY was I still in the building all day with counselors and students? Why was I allowed to roam the halls? WHY was I given the sports schedule and allowed to check out the teams? If you had to apologize, then WHY did you still allow me to speak to the parents and educators that evening? If you had to apologize, then WHY were you asking me to still speak in the morning, but asking me to just tone it down?
These are valid questions.
If I caused such an uproar, WHY were you NOT at the meeting for parents and educators? Why were NONE of your associate principals or the high school principal doing anything when all of this was allegedly happening? There are a lot of liability “red flags” here.
Be the change in the conversation – but it all starts with having integrity and standing up for what is right – not by trying to save face.
I demand an apology and a letter of truth to the parents and teachers. Do the right thing, Mr. LaCroix. Hold yourself accountable. Hold your staff accountable. Hold your students accountable. I work hard every day reflecting on the man I am and the message I deliver from my heart to theirs. I think I am doing something right because my schedule is booked solid.
I have received hundreds of messages from folks sending me their thoughts: “Jeff, it’s not you – it’s Bay Port High School culture.” “Jeff, keep doing what you’re doing. You are appreciated and we’re sorry.”
While I appreciate those kind words, remember this: The threats and harassment I have also received are not only seen by me, but by my family, my assistant (who lost her own son to suicide), my supporters and many other school professionals who have hired me in the past and will continue to hire me. I will be okay but crossing my family and my hard-working assistant is WAY TOO MUCH for me and gets me boiling because I protect them.
I want to thank the Bay Port High School Community for allowing me to come and visit. I thought I had a great day. Your counselors, Michelle and Angela and the administrative staff were a pleasure to work with. I had some amazing conversations, one-on-ones. For those who heard the message and whatever it meant to them, I am honored I was a part of your life. If any students or staff members felt uncomfortable, I am sorry if my truth and who I am as a person had this effect on you. It wasn’t my intention to distract you from the importance of the message I shared from the heart. Reach out to me and I will personally apologize and listen to your heart.
Growth is uncomfortable. We can’t fix what we can’t acknowledge. Acknowledge it and talk about it. Thoughts are thoughts, but feelings are feelings. Remember that.
You have a beautiful school. I wish you all the best.
Also, let’s look at the outcome. If the expectation was to initiate a conversation, I think we accomplished that.
Let’s look at the social media part as another conversation. There is appropriate use and inappropriate use of social media. Too many students and staff created new accounts to partake in the problem. Those who used their real names challenged me we had meaningful conversation. I will not run away, because this is my job and my passion. Ultimately, I want to be a positive influence in your lives. My character and my message are on full display every day.
At some point, I hope this experience will continue the conversation in a more positive way. If I had to be a part of it, I am honored to have done my tough work.
I wish you all a safe graduation and summer. No matter what. Know that I care deeply and love you all – my heart to yours.
Now, I’ve got to go and protect my heart, my family and my friends.
It’s OK to ask for help. Be influential. Love yourself. Change the world.