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The Leap

Even a year later, on the anniversary this February, the school infuriated some students and parents by seeming to squelch any meaningful group observance. Flowers brought by several friends were removed from the high-school lounge and relocated near administration offices, presumably to prevent emotion from spilling over unobserved. In an introduction to a moment of silence during ten-o’clock announcements, the speaker did not mention Teddy’s name. After students complained about what they perceived to be these “boneheaded” insults to Teddy’s memory, as well as to their grief, the administration pointed out in an e-mail that it had to take into consideration not just those who wished to mourn but those who might have different needs that day.

Doubtless Dalton, whose motto is “Go Forth Unafraid,” was following “best practice” advice—both psychological and legal. But while plenty of Dalton families found the response impeccable, that’s exactly what upset others. One parent said it would have been better to act with less advice and more heart. Taken cumulatively, this parent added, Dalton’s actions gave the appearance of protecting its reputation, not its students.

For elite private schools, the two things may not be very different. When media attention quickly focused on the famous pressures of a Dalton education, as if to suggest they played a role in Teddy’s death, it would therefore have been counterproductive to respond, even though it was true, that such pressures had not caused other students to kill themselves. Having a fight in the tabloids over Teddy was not going to help anyone. Nor would a trial. Perhaps that’s why Susan Karten, a personal-injury litigator who represented Carla in her dealings with Dalton, found the school immediately willing to sit down. “Everyone was in the frame of doing the right thing,” she says. “But the right thing for Carla and for public consumption might be different.”

Given the facts, it’s entirely unclear that Karten could have won a liability case; given New York’s peculiar wrongful-death statutes, it’s doubtful she could have produced a significant award even if she prevailed. Dalton apparently preferred not to find out. A Surrogate’s Court decree dated November 9, 2009, approves a deal whereby the school agrees to pay Carla $200,000 and Carla agrees to “discharge and release” Dalton “from any and all claims” she might have asserted. Though I found the document in the court’s public records, no one would discuss it—or any other settlement, public or private, that might have been made. When I asked Karten about it, she said, “What settlement?”

Either way, a settlement does not imply a resolution. So Carla did what she always does in addressing a problem: research. Books on depression, on causes of suicide—“You name it, I read it,” she says. “To the point where I could write them myself. I wasn’t learning anything new.” It was not until months later, when her thousandth Google search brought up a Times article called “The Urge to End It All,” that anything gave her “a window into what might have happened.”

What might have happened was a so-called impulsive suicide, which accounts for perhaps 10 percent of suicides. As the article, by Scott Anderson, pointed out, impulsive suicides are seldom accompanied by the classic warning signs, such as prior attempts, diagnosed mental illness, or drug or alcohol abuse. The act is sudden, unrehearsed—and is thus especially common among young people, who are naturally impulsive to begin with. Among 153 young survivors of nearly fatal suicide attempts interviewed in a 2001 University of Houston study, “70 percent set the interval between deciding to kill themselves and acting at less than an hour,” Anderson reported, “including an astonishing 24 percent who pegged the interval at less than five minutes.”

Carla immediately latched onto this as the missing explanation. It was preferable to think that Teddy belonged to a group of people who, as one psychiatrist put it, did not truly want to die but sought a physical solution to a temporary spiritual agony. Though this would not bring Teddy back, it mattered to Carla. “Because I now understood,” she says. “Because I didn’t miss something. It doesn’t relieve the grief at all, but it helped relieve the guilt.”

As much comfort as it may provide survivors, the idea of impulsive suicide is controversial, and many professionals I spoke to responded with mixed feelings. Public-health types embrace the concept because it explains otherwise inexplicable phenomena, like why suicide rates go down substantially when even minor obstacles (such as guardrails) go up. To them, the data suggest not only a need but also an opportunity for prevention. Harvard professor David Hemenway, who directs the school’s Injury Control Research Center, told me that impulsive suicides are probably easier to prevent than the “regular” kind. “It’s not like someone who’s clinically depressed and doesn’t have a job,” he says. “This is a kid with a really good life, who just needs to get over this little hump, that’s all you have to do.”