Ely Serna (left) and his attorney, Dennis Lieberman listen to Champaign County Juvenile Court Judge Lori Reisinger during proceedings to determine if Serna is competent to stand trial. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF
Photo: Jeff Guerini
Photo: Jeff Guerini

Champaign County seeks solutions after 3 youth tragedies in 7 months

In October, 11-year-old Bethany Thompson fatally shot herself in the head on her back porch in Cable. Four months later, 17-year-old Ely Serna allegedly brought a shotgun to West Liberty-Salem High School and has been accused of firing at least six rounds, striking two students. And then last month, 14-year-old Donovan Nicholas was arrested and accused of slaying his father’s girlfriend at their Mad River Twp. home.

RELATED: Bethany’s Story

The Springfield News-Sun spoke with mental health experts, parents, local service providers and education leaders to find out what’s happened in the aftermath of those incidents and what’s being done to prevent more violence involving young people.

“Our goal is to catch it early enough, when the problems first start,” said Missy Ussher, director of the Champaign County Family and Children First Council. “What we want to do is bring those services in. If that child is having issues in school, let’s get the school involved, let’s get mental health in there and let’s see what the problem is.”

The council offers a wraparound service, which provides children and families a team of county professionals to tackle issues they face. It currently serves about 50 families.

“We are trying to collaborate with other agencies to come up with different committees on how we can prevent these things from happening again,” Ussher said.

Bethany Thompson

Bethany Thompson
Photo: Staff Writer

The 11-year-old Triad Middle School student made national news late last year when allegations were lodged that she killed herself because of bullying at school. Her parents contend that kids taunted her because of her smile, which became crooked after she underwent brain surgery at 3-years-old to remove a cancerous tumor.

Her father, Paul Thompson, has worked with community leaders to get more licensed counselors into elementary schools and to make bullying a crime, punishable by arrest.

More counselors in schools could mean that students can get help faster at a younger age, Paul Thompson said.

“It would cure a lot of problems that’s going on in middle school,” he said. “You can nip it in the bud. It would also help students know at an early age it’s not OK to be a bully or be mean or rude. I think bullying needs to be a conversation daily.”

DETAILS: Parents say suicide of Champaign County girl part of bullying epidemic

A counselor can act as an outlet for students who don’t have someone at home to talk openly with, he said. Triad Middle School employs a school psychologist and guidance counselors already, Superintendent Chris Piper said.

The district has added many new initiatives following Bethany’s suicide, he said, including creating a community network to help students who are in need.

“It’s a group of local government leaders and agencies, religious leaders and other community members,” he said. “We have been meeting with them monthly to see how we can expand services outside school walls.”

The family council is part of that group, Ussher said, as is mental health experts and the Champaign County Sheriff’s Office.

The Champaign County Suicide Collation also now conducts suicide screenings on high school and middle school students. Expanding the program into the middle school was the plan before Bethany’s suicide, Piper said, but it’s an example of how serious the district takes the issue.

“The evidence nationwide is the issues are happening at younger and younger ages,” he said. “We think it is appropriate. We are the first middle school that has brought that down in the county.”

The district has also expanded its healthy skills program, which is designed to teach students to make healthy choices instead of engaging in risky behaviors and a parent advisory board that the administration keeps informed of new things its doing to prepare students to make good choices.

Paul Thompson also wants to make bullying a crime. He said bullying happens too often across the country and stricter laws might deter a student from harassing another kid.

West Liberty-Salem school shooting 

Ely Serna (left) and his attorney, Dennis Lieberman listen to Champaign County Juvenile Court Judge Lori Reisinger during proceedings to determine if Serna is competent to stand trial. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Ely Serna, 17, remains in a juvenile detention center after he was accused of firing multiple rounds at school on Jan. 20, including at 17-year-old Logan Cole. Logan was seriously injured in the shooting but has been recovering and returning to classes.

Prosecutors have asked to try Serna as an adult and are awaiting the results of a competency ruling from the judge.

READ MORE: No ruling on competency for West Liberty-Salem school shooting

The shooting shook the small West Liberty community and support poured out from surrounding schools. Tragedies now have a greater reach in a region than ever before thanks to social and mass media, said Scott Poland, a certified school psychologist and professor at Nova Southeastern University.

“Kids are connected like never before,” Poland said. “Thirty miles seemed a long way at one time, but today if something like this happens 30 miles away it has repercussions everywhere in the county.”

It’s safe to say that the shooting had a widespread effect. Triad recently replaced its windows at the middle and elementary school, implementing escape windows in classrooms in case students need to get out. Urbana City Schools also decided to buy the same escape windows for its high school that’s under construction.

West Liberty-Salem has also made changes. It’s installing the escape windows in every classroom of its high school, along with new door handles that clearly indicate whether it’s locked or not.

Poland, who has worked as a district adviser on more than 10 school shootings across the country, said West Liberty-Salem is coming up to a critical time in its healing — summer vacation. Just because kids are off school, he said that doesn’t mean students who were most affected by the shooting won’t need counseling and help.

Vulnerable youth need to access to services over the summer, he said.

“And sometimes it’s hard to know where to get those services,” Poland said. “If I was a counselor at one of these schools, I would assess how friends and family are doing and start to make summer plans for all students who might need help. Where are we weakest at and what is the long-term follow up plan?”

In Poland’s experience, it might take a few months before a student realizes he or she needs help and comes for counseling. The district needs to be prepared to help those students who realize that during the summer, he said.

Donovan Nicholas murder charge 

14 year old, Donovan Nicholas is charged with aggravated murder and murder in the death of Heidi Fay Taylor in Champaign County. A judge has ordered that his face not be shown. JEFF GUERINI/STAFF
Photo: Staff Writer

Graham Middle School student Donovan A. Nicholas, 14, has been charged with murder and aggravated murder in connection with the death of 40-year-old Heidi Fay Taylor, his father’s girlfriend. He remains in a juvenile detention center.

Nicholas, who described Taylor as his mom during a 9-1-1 call, told a Champaign County dispatcher an alternate personality named “Jeff” killed her, according to the recording obtained by the Springfield New-Sun.

“This is going to be really hard to explain but I kind of have another person inside me,” Nicholas can be heard telling the dispatcher.

DETAILS: 8th grade murder suspect’s revealing 9-1-1 call

Taylor was killed at Nicholas’ home in the 4300 block of Valley Pike in Mad River Twp. Nicholas can be heard on the recording saying Jeff stabbed Taylor and then shot her.

Prosecutors have requested that Nicholas be tried as an adult.

Graham Superintendent Kirk Koennecke said mental health in Champaign County affects his district — and every surrounding district — daily.

“Much is asked of schools today in terms of care, both before, during and after class for students and families in need,” he said. “While we have some great partners who provide wonderful programs and resources in the area, we continue to see a lack of direct state funding to support these needed programs for the health and well-being of our children with multiple needs.”

The family council often relies on schools to refer students and families to them, Ussher said.

“Our approach at Graham has been to attack what we can through our educational efforts with early literacy through the Read, Imagine, Soar! Foundation, and with community partnerships that allow us to work together to tackle issues,” Koennecke said. “This past year Graham joined the Ohio Adolescent Health Partnership. This network of partners across the state provides us with valuable information and resources to impact the wellness of our students, including new screening tools our nurses are researching.”

The district hires a school psychologist and intern, he said, who can service students who need them. Graham hasn’t made any major changes to the way it serves students since the arrest of Nicholas.

“We haven’t adopted any particular changes following the Nicholas case,” he said. “However, whenever serious cases like this occur in and around the county, we always review and try to learn from them to better serve our community.”

‘Need for more time with family’

Champaign County isn’t the only place that has seen violence involving juveniles.

Clark County prosecutors have charged Nicholas Starling, 16, with murder and tampering with evidence in connection with the death of his 14-year-old brother, Harley Starling. He’s accused of beating Harley with a baseball bat and allegedly stabbing him with a knife.

In Logan County, Jasmine Lewis and Tatiana Freeman were both 17-years-old at the time of their arrests following the fatal shooting of Jeff Brentlinger, 45, at his home in rural Zanesfield. Both face juvenile charges of complicity to commit murder and complicity to commit robbery.

MORE: Hearing reveals details in Logan County shooting death

They are accused of allegedly seducing Brentlinger and working with others to rob him.

Mental health experts believe students need to have someone they can trust and talk with about their concerns or issues. That helpssquash problems instead of letting them fester, Poland said.

Often times parents are the people children turn to, but any family member or close friend can be that person.

“There is a need for more time with family and more sharing time,” Poland said, adding that parents shouldn’t be afraid to take control of their household when needed.

“There are four cabinets I say parents must keep control of: the medicine cabinet, the liquor cabinet, the internet and the gun cabinet,” Poland said. “Teenagers would be better off if the parents took charge of those four things.”

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