Daughter’s death by suicide spurs mother to action

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS — Lana Swoape, a single mom of three kids, was perhaps closest to her middle child, her daughter, Tori.

Tori was a fair-skinned, biracial girl with light eyes and light hair — light enough to turn blonde in the summer. She had a bubbly personality and found something in common with students at every lunch table.

“She really lit up the room,” Lana said.

She even loved country music and joked she was the “whitest black girl” people ever would meet.

Lana Swoape points to one of Tori Swoape’s Facebook posts calling her mother her hero in April 2012 that Lana later made into a fridge magnet. The magnet is pasted next to a magnet of one of Tori’s childhood photos. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

It was because of her beauty and likeability that Lana was protective of Tori. Unlike the other kids growing up in Muncie, Tori couldn’t go to the skating rink and hang out until 11, 11:30 at night.

“They just dropped their kids off and don’t know what they’re doing,” Lana said. “I was really strict. I didn’t even take her to the mall with a group of friends because they could get into trouble.”

Lana, 43, only let Tori spend the night with two friends, girls whose mothers Lana had grown up with. She knew their values and lifestyles. She trusted them.

But most of the time, the Swoapes did things as a family. Just the four of them.

And when the whole family moved to Bloomington to follow her oldest, her son, who got a scholarship to Indiana University, they grew even closer, as they didn’t know anyone in town.

Tori was about 12 at the time of the move.

In Bloomington, Sunday was family day. Tuesday was girls’ night. Lana, Tori and her youngest daughter would always do something. They’d watch episodes of “Pretty Little Liars” back-to-back and fix dinner.

Tori’s mother, Lana Swoape, talks in her Muncie home about her memories with Tori. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

“We really had a lot of fun down there together,” Lana said. “We spent all our time together.”

But even though Lana and Tori got close, really close, Tori still didn’t open up about her personal life — what was going on at school, what her friends were up to and the like.

“Tori didn’t like to talk a lot about her problems,” she said.

  • • •

Lana Swoape is one of several people who voiced support for Senate Bill 506 and House Bill 1430, two pieces of legislation that were in play at the Indiana Statehouse this session. Both bills aimed to establish programs and resources to reduce youth suicide in the state.

Of the two, the Senate bill was written to be the most comprehensive. Sen. Randy Head, R-Logansport, authored the bill as the result of work he and other legislators compiled on a summer task force that studied and gave recommendations of what to do to reduce and prevent youth suicide deaths. The task force determined a few ways to combat the state’s problem with young people ages 17 to 24 years old, all of which were bundled and included in Head’s bill.

The biggest component of his legislation is for the state to pay $30,000 to $35,000 a year to employ a statewide suicide prevention coordinator who would decide what professions should receive training on suicide issues and how that training will be funded.

The bill would ensure all new and existing medical service providers, such as therapists and doctors, completed an evidence-based training program about treating suicide.

On the education side, Head’s bill was written to ensure schools have a plan for intervention for students who may be thinking about suicide and what to do after students die by suicide at their school, in an effort to decrease copycats.

It also would require school and colleges to train all employees who have direct, ongoing contact with students to do two hours of evidence-based and age-appropriate training about youth suicide awareness and prevention every five years.

The House bill was designed to do just one part of that.

Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Merrilville, authored the House youth suicide bill, which originally only required schools teaching grades 7 through 12 to undergo suicide training.

Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Merrilville, talks about the House bill she authored about youth suicide in an education committee in February. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Olthoff’s bill would require teachers and other staff members who have regular contact with students, like counselors and coaches, to undergo two hours of youth suicide and prevention awareness training every two years. Because the training could be online or in-person and would only add another in-service topic to each school’s training discussion, it was written to require no state money.

The goal of both pieces of legislation was simple: Reduce the number of young people taking their lives or thinking about suicide in Indiana.

  • • •

The Swoapes’ move to Bloomington was a chance for a fresh start, especially for Tori. She was upset with some of the kids at her Muncie school of 550 students.

“It was so small,” Lana said. “Everybody knew everybody’s business.”

They were calling her names because she tended to have more guy friends than girl ones. Lana wanted to go to the school to tell the administration about the treatment, but Tori insisted she didn’t.

“She said, ‘Mom, I think it’s a good idea to move down this way,’” Lana said.

Lana Swoape pulls a childhood photograph of Tori Swoape from a storage box filled with family photos. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

But the bullying followed her to Bloomington.

When Tori came home from the first day at her new high school, she told her mom she was called names by girls at another table when she sat with football players at lunch.

A little while after Tori moved to Bloomington, she made a close friend. One Lana—after hours of sitting down with the friend’s mom and what seemed like hours of Tori begging—let Tori stay the night with.

“We discussed our morals and ways of raising our girls,” Lana said. “She seemed like she was on my level. She seemed to have good parenting skills. So I let Tori stay there.”

  • • •

Olthoff partly decided to take on the bill because she’s from Lake County and didn’t realize how high the numbers were where she was from—or across the state in general.

“I don’t see it as a number,” Olthoff said. “These are people.”

More than 80 Hoosier families experience the suicide of a young person in their lives each year.

The Indiana Youth Institute puts out a data book about the wellbeing of young Hoosiers annually. In this year’s national survey of more than 30 states, Indiana ranked higher than the national rate in all four categories relating to suicide.

On a national scale, Indiana ranked third for high schoolers who have seriously considered suicide and second for those who actually made a suicide plan. That breaks down to about 1 in 5 Indiana high school students who seriously considered attempting suicide.

Additionally, Indiana ranks 10th for students who actually attempted to take their own lives and ninth for high schoolers whose suicide attempts required medical attention.

These issues are frequently linked to mental health problems, the most common of which is depression. In 2015, about 30 percent of Hoosier high school students reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing some of their normal activities for two or more weeks in a row.

Lake and Marion counties have the most suicides in the state, mostly because of their large populations, according to data from the Indiana State Department of Health. In 2015, both counties had 17 youth suicides.

But it’s not just happening in the big counties. In 2015, 49 out of 92 Indiana counties had at least one young person die by suicide, up from 2014. St. Joseph County had eight suicides, Allen County had seven and Hamilton County had five, rounding out the top six counties where young people end their lives.

  • • •

Lana remembers the day clearly.

It was a Monday. May 7, 2012. Raining outside.

The Swoapes were in the process of moving their stuff back to Muncie, tired of traveling back and forth to visit Lana’s mom each week from Bloomington.

They didn’t have the money to get a moving van to take everything down at once. So the move happened in minivan trips, taking all the seats out and bringing a load with them when going back for the weekend.

Lana Swoape thumbs through a thick pile of her daughter’s phone records. The stream of incoming and outgoing text messages was a trail of clues of what happened in the final moments of Tori’s life. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

She doesn’t know what made her do it, but Lana decided to load up their sectional to take to Muncie while her children were at school. Around one in the afternoon, she texted Tori, saying she needed to go get her little sister off the bus stop at 4, fix her a snack and let her watch TV. Tori was in 10th grade at the time and got out at 3 p.m., so it worked out perfectly.

When Lana was in Muncie, the weather got bad. The rain got harder. She couldn’t see very well in the rain, so she and Tori texted and called back and forth, explaining why she hadn’t left yet.

When the rain eased up, Lana got on the highway and started driving.

The last text message Tori sent Lana was 7:27 p.m.

Lana was back in Bloomington, at home, at 7:53 p.m.

  • • •

The two bills that worked their way through the Statehouse during the just-ended session are not new — mostly, they are modeled on what other states are already doing and building on existing laws.

Supporters of both the Senate and House versions this year say legislation that was short-sighted. It required new teachers to undergo suicide prevention training to recognize the signs of a student considering suicide. It didn’t mandate the program for teachers who were already in the classroom or extend the training to other staff who come in contact with students often, like coaches, bus drivers and the like.

Olthoff’s House legislation took that law further. Her bill was inspired by the Jason Flatt Act, which was first passed in 2007 in Tennessee and has been enacted in 19 states.

The act requires the suicide training for teachers to take place every year—a principle Olthoff first applied to her bill. But committee discussion watered that down to be every two years instead, as other representatives thought the frequency may overburden teachers who already have countless mandated programs from the Department of Education.

Aside from the frequency, Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, voiced a concern in the House Education Committee, saying he thinks matters like this shouldn’t be decided by the legislature.

“I think the Department of Education should make decisions on teaching or training teachers as needed,” DeLaney said in committee. “But it’s hard to vote against this bill, so I’ll vote for it.”

Olthoff’s bill passed both the committee and the full House unanimously in February.

  • • •

Supporters who went to the Statehouse in favor of the bills, like Colleen Carpenter, a suicide prevention trainer and consultant based in Fort Wayne, say school safety commissions should talk about and plan for suicides the same way they would for tornadoes or active shooter situations. Carpenter said it’s backwards that there is more training in schools for CPR than suicide, as suicide is much more likely to touch students’ lives.

“We need to invest in our kids,” she said. “What we are doing at the state level addressing suicide is nothing.”

As the public policy director for the Marion County Commission on Youth, Mindi Goodpaster does a lot of lobbying for children’s issues to try to get more state-level attention.

Mindi Goodpaster, public policy director for the Marion County Commission on Youth, speaks in favor of the youth suicide bill in February. “Teachers are burdened. We know that,” she said in a committee meeting. “But we also believe teachers deserve the resource and the tools to understand how to help their students. Teachers want to help their students.” Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Her argument is that requiring awareness training is important because if teachers can recognize the behavior, they connect students to the right resources, whether that be inside the school or a local organization.

“They’re in a critical place to understand and recognize if a child is struggling,” Goodpaster said during a committee testimony. “We’re not saying that teachers have to become counselors. That’s not their responsibility. But a teacher knows their students. They have contact with them every single day, five days a week. They understand when their students may be having difficulties.”

  • • •

When Lana came home, her little one was laying on the floor of the couch-less living room, asleep, TV humming in the background.

As she moved through the apartment, she found Tori’s bedroom door locked—a no-no, as her girls weren’t allowed to lock the interior doors of the house.

“As a mom, never in my life had I felt that way I did then,” Lana said. “I knew something was wrong. I felt something was wrong. I didn’t want to see what was behind that door.”

She yelled for Tori to open up and called her cell phone five times, hearing it ring through the walls without an answer.

“I was yelling, ‘Tori! Tori Nakol! You’re going to be grounded, you hear me?’”

Lana found a neighbor to help her open the bedroom. Through the cracked door, she saw her daughter. Lifeless.

While holding out a #StopBullyingForTori wristband, Lana Swoape explains the movements and events that launched after Tori’s suicide to raise awareness about the issue. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Tori’s curly hair — the same hair that turned blonde in the summer — was pushed out of the way, revealing her purple-tinted face, limp body and a scarf tied around her neck.

She had used it to hang herself using her bedroom doorknob. It was tied so tight it crushed her larynx.

“I blame myself. I was with her every day,” Lana said. “Why didn’t I see this?”

Tori was rushed to the hospital and put on a machine to put the color back into her, but to this day, Lana says she thinks she was gone when she found her. Tori died just two months before her 16th birthday.

“It was a shock to everybody,” she said. “To her friends. To me. She was always smiling.”

  • • •

Although Head’s bill moved swiftly through the Senate, it died after being assigned to a committee in the House at the end of February. Even when a bill dies during the session, though, the language is still alive.

So, after careful review, Olthoff decided to add that language to her bill to make one expansive youth suicide bill—which requires the training every two years, establishes the state suicide prevention coordinator, trains health care providers about suicide, and requires schools and colleges to implement policies to prevent suicide, among other items.

That new, comprehensive bill unanimously passed both the House and Senate in April with 131 total lawmakers voting in favor of creating resources and doing training to protect young Hoosiers.

Supporters of the new legislation who work in suicide education say it will make a real difference in schools.

Take the experience of Janet Schnell, chair for the American Association of Suicidology. She said she’s has seen results, first hand, from suicide prevention and awareness training like this in her rural area.

In Dubois County, after an usually high number of suicides for their population, Schnell helped bring a thorough program into the school corporations that trained two suicide prevention specialists at schools of all levels. The staff members who got specialized training had backgrounds in in nursing, teaching and administration. One was even a football coach.

Schnell, who attempted suicide herself when she was younger, also helped bring a gatekeeper program to staff members who often interact with children, like bus drivers, janitors and cafeteria workers, to learn how to prevent suicide and know the proper way to respond.

Now that the adults were trained, students in 8th or 9th grade are taught during a one-hour, mandatory class about suicide prevention and awareness each year. The schools then include public service announcements related to suicide prevention throughout the year.

“We actually watched our suicide rate go down,” she said. “And it continues to go down. With that said, one suicide is still too many.”

The idea is to start this training in schools because those kids will one day grow up to be the college students and the adults who will know the right thing to do.

David Berman, who holds director positions for Mental Health America of Indiana and Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Indiana, said this legislation is not the end of the conversation.

“My child spends more time and has more direct interaction on a daily basis with his teachers than he does my wife and I,” Berman said. “I want those individuals, who supposedly care about my children, to be trained as gatekeepers to, if nothing else, be able to refer them to resources.”

When Berman was in school, the only interaction he had with suicide prevention was signing a contract promising he wouldn’t take his own life.

It didn’t make an impact. Between the ages of 13 and 19, he attempted suicide three times.

“If these types of programs had been in place, knowing what I do now, I’m 1,000 percent sure I would have not ever attempted,” he said. “Much less three times.”

And the legislation is going to do that.

Gov. Eric Holcomb signed the bill into law Friday and it takes effect July 1.

  • • •

Lana still talks about Tori in the present tense.

“It’s been nearly five years, and I can still see her body,” she said.

Lana says Tori’s suicide can be attributed to a number of factors, mainly the fact that her relationship with her newest friend — the one she was finally allowed to spend the night with — grew increasingly toxic.

Tori Swoape’s lifespan gleams on her tombstone, which is located in a Muncie cemetery next to other Swoape family members. The tombstone is engraved with childhood photos, a poem and other memories. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

After Tori’s funeral, Lana got print outs from her phone company of Tori’s incoming and outgoing text messages the night she died by suicide. The last text she received was from that friend, telling Tori to kill herself after a series of texts implying blackmail.

Lana never saw it coming.

“She had never talked about suicide to me,” Lana said. “Never, ever.”

That’s why supporters of the new law say training teachers and other staff members at schools is important, as suicide and depression are often too taboo for students to discuss with their parents.

And although Lana didn’t make it to the Statehouse to testify in favor of either bill, she supported the legislation and thinks its passage could intervene in the lives of students considering suicide — just like Tori.

She’s even working on some of her own projects to stop youth suicide, including a program to help prevent bullying at an even younger age in elementary schools, to carry her on daughter’s legacy.

“I’m doing this for Tori,” Swoape said. “We can’t fix peoples’ home lives. We can’t get the parents to do it. We have to get the schools, because if we don’t educate our teachers and students about this, it’s going to keep happening.”

Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news site powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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