Six months after the suicide of their 15-year-old son, Reid, Mark and Joni Adler are still trying to make sense of it.
Because Mark Adler is superintendent of Ralston Public Schools, their tragedy has been a public one.
Adler said Friday they are trying to move forward, guided by their religious faith, to make something positive from a situation he described as “worse than negative.”
He said the couple have forgiven a girl who posted online an embarrassing photo of Reid the night before his suicide.
They don’t intend to pursue any legal action against her, Adler said.
“She’s already carrying probably one of the worst sentences she could ever carry,” he said. “She knows why my son took his life. And she has to live with that.”
The girl is no longer in the Ralston district.
He said he may, at some point, explore whether Nebraska law provides sufficient consequences when someone’s irresponsible action leads to a person’s death.
He said Reid was wrong to send a picture of his “private area” to the girl, but he shouldn’t have paid for that mistake with his life.
Adler said the support of the community and the district has been “incredible.”
The Adlers have accepted a few invitations to speak, hoping to spread a message of the importance of kindness and to encourage communication between parents and their children, he said. They will speak this week at the annual Administrators’ Days convention in Kearney, a gathering of thousands of public school leaders from across Nebraska.
He said he has some regrets after Reid’s death, wondering if he should have pushed harder for answers after his son expressed suicidal feelings a month before taking his life.
According to Adler, when Reid was in middle school he took the picture and sent it to the girl. The Adlers didn’t know about the picture until after his death.
In early December last year, when Reid was a freshman at Ralston High School, he sent a note to his mother saying that at times he felt like he didn’t want to live anymore, Mark Adler said. Reid had watched some videos about suicide that said you should talk to someone, he said.
“We automatically started taking him to counseling,” Adler said. “And he was pretty good. He’s, like, ‘Yeah, I’ll go to counseling.’ ”
Joni Adler said Reid was nervous during the first session.
“And on the way out he’s, like, ‘Man, I am just sweating.’ His whole shirt was drenched because he was so nervous.”
She thought the session was wonderful. She got to share stories and share with Reid everything she loved about him. They agreed they liked the counselor and would go back again.
Joni Adler attended every session. Mark Adler attended some, he said.
Mark Alder said he appreciated the opportunity to tell Reid why he loved him and how special he was, and to talk about his positive traits.
Mark Adler said he was able to share things that he wouldn’t have normally shared during the usual family routine.
Still, he said, he found it difficult to talk with his son about his son’s suicidal feelings.
The morning after Reid had shared his feelings with his mother, Mark Adler said he wanted to talk to him about it but couldn’t get the words out.
Instead, he texted him.
“I basically told him this is how special you are, the things I love about you. I said ‘Whatever’s bothering you, we will help you. It doesn’t matter what it is.’ ”
They texted back and forth.
Mark told him to trust him, that there are two things he cares about: his wife and his kids.
Reid wrote back: “Daddy, I trust you, and I love you, and I’m sorry.”
“And I said ‘Don’t be sorry. You don’t have to be sorry. We’ve got this.’ He writes back to me — and, probably, this is one of my only regrets — he said ‘Some of this stuff is embarrassing, and so it would be hard to tell you, so I just keep it in.’ ”
Mark Adler replied that it didn’t matter what it was, “Buddy, we got this.”
He said he felt like he had opened the door to let Reid say what was bothering him.
“What I regret is I should have just went to him the very first time I could and said ‘What is it? What’s going on?’ I didn’t do that. And I don’t know why I didn’t. I just didn’t. Looking back on it, I wish I would have.”
Mark Adler said he believes that Reid was increasingly troubled about the picture he sent. The picture had probably been weighing on him for the better part of a year; however, the Adlers said they didn’t detect any changes in his behavior during that time. By December, Mark Adler said, he believes that Reid thought that the girl might post the photo.
On Jan. 6 the girl posted the picture to a site called Omaha Purge, he said. Purge sites are websites aimed at posting embarrassing material.
“He apparently didn’t know how to handle it, so he took his own life,” Mark Adler said.
On Jan. 7 Joni Adler went downstairs about 7:20 a.m. to wake up Reid and found him. He had died by suffocation.
Jade, their older daughter, was already at school. Kamille, their younger daughter, was upstairs in her room, getting ready for school.
Mark Adler was in the parents’ bedroom, ironing Reid’s pants. The basketball team had a game later that day, and the players were to dress up for school.
“I don’t think Reid was depressed,” Adler said. “I really don’t. And I don’t think Reid planned on taking his life that night, because on our computer was his AP English homework that he had to turn in the next day, completely done.”
The picture was posted around 8 or 8:30 p.m.
Mark Adler said Reid, though not perfect, was a “great kid,” fun-loving, impulsive, a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” kind of kid.
He said he believes Reid knew that sending the picture was wrong, and it weighed heavily on him. He believes Reid was concerned about how the discovery of the picture might reflect on his dad as superintendent.
“You wouldn’t think serving as superintendent of schools would be an issue that you would have to worry about your family,” he said. “But I do think it had something to do with it. I do think it figured in.”
Mark Adler said he believes that had Reid met with the counselor alone, he may have revealed what was bothering him.
Joni Adler said that after Reid’s death she exchanged Instagram messages with the girl who posted the picture. She said she wanted to learn more about the girl. In one of those messages, she forgave her, she said.
The Adlers achieve some peace by talking about Reid’s death.
They’ve given a couple of presentations to groups that invited them. A big part of their message is about loving your kids and communicating with them.
They’ve been showered with messages of support.
Friends and colleagues who work in education have told Mark Adler they’ve been more deliberate when talking with troubled kids to make sure they don’t miss something.
Former students have written Mark Adler to say how his guidance kept them from heading down a dark path, he said.
Mark Adler said it’s difficult to know that as an educator he’s intervened successfully in some situations involving other children, but he couldn’t prevent his own son’s death.
On Sept. 2 he and Joni are scheduled to speak at the American Spirit Summit at the Ralston Arena.
Well-wishers have sent them money, most of which was put into the Ralston Schools Foundation, he said.
They have set up the Reid Adler Memorial Kindness Scholarship to award at least one $1,000 scholarship to a Ralston High graduating senior each year. This year they were able to issue three. Each recipient is given $250 to pass on to others in a gesture of kindness. This year one student gave it to Habitat for Humanity, another started a Reading for Reid book drive, and another started a Circle of Friends autism support group.
Joni Adler wanted to include the kindness component so students would “pay it forward.”
Mark Adler said he and his wife are trying to focus on spreading kindness and awareness of mental health and suicide.
“If we can help anybody not have to deal with something like this, then we feel like that would be a step in the right direction,” he said.
The basement of their home, which had been a favorite gathering place of Reid and his friends, has been renovated as a warm, inviting room decorated with family photos and artwork Reid made in school.
Contact the writer: 402-444-1077, firstname.lastname@example.org
Help is available through a variety of resources.
Call 911 or contact one of these organizations:
» Nebraska Family Helpline, 888-866-8660
» Your Life Iowa Hotline, 855-581-8111
» Boys Town National Hotline, 800-448-3000
» Nebraska Rural Response Hotline, 800-464-0258
» National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255)
» Websites for Nebraskans (youthsuicideprevention.nebraska.edu); Iowans (yourlifeiowa.org)