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Auburn father pleads for kinder world after teen daughter’s death

Hannah Olson, 14, took own life Saturday
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Hannah Olson's funeral

The funeral service for Hannah Olson will be at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, 1279 High Street, in Auburn today at 3:30 p.m. Everyone who loved Hannah is welcome to attend, her father Amos Olson said.

In lieu of flowers, the family said donations may be made to the Auburn Boys and Girls Club, to a wildlife or land preservation group, or “anything that you feel specifically helps our planet and its people.”

Tuesday night, about 200 people gathered in the Bethlehem Lutheran Church sanctuary in Auburn, a community mourning the death of 14-year-old Hannah Olson, who committed suicide Saturday at her Auburn home.

Her father, Amos Olson, said he found the strength to speak to the group, in spite of the pain, because he hopes the message he had to deliver will prevent a future tragedy.

“We want to celebrate the best parts of Hannah’s life,” Olson said. “There are things that hopefully we can all learn.”

Community members from Del Oro High School, where she had been a freshman, and Placer High School were among those attending, and mental health experts were on hand to provide counseling.

Friends of Hannah told him at the gathering that she was the one who could always “ignite the laughter in the room,” he said.

She had been a gifted writer, her poetry published in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans, 2011 edition, and a bright student – in 2010 she won second place in Biological Sciences Junior Division at the Sacramento Science & Engineer Fair.

She filled sketchbooks with “delicate drawings;” she worked her way to a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, her father said.

She also had a place of sadness that couldn’t be reached by any means, he said, and she took her life impulsively and with out any indication of her intent.

“Even right up to the very end, she was bubbly and happy among her peers and someone that people wanted to be with,” Olson said. “Though we saw these same things because she engages us the same way, we just realized her baseline – she wasn’t as freed as a person she was in the previous years of her life.”

He assured people at the gathering that it took courage to face the issue, and that “there was absolutely nothing anyone could have done more for Hannah to make her make a different choice other than the one she did.”

She had received counseling and medication, and had been in “continuous care” for the past two years ever since her first attempt to take her own life, he said. Both times, a friend had told Hannah’s parents and a school counselor when noticing warning signs with Hannah, he added.

 

‘Tolerance isn’t just a word’

In an interview Wednesday, Olson explained how “contributing societal factors” had made the world an “increasingly ugly place” for his daughter.

He said Hannah had been suffering through emotional pain, and he described two points in time when she went through a “slide,” one starting six weeks ago, the other two years ago. He told of two instances where peers had been cruel to her that had left “very deep wounds to her.”

One happened at a Del Oro football game this season, he said.

“She was spit on by boys at a football game because they didn’t like something about her,” Olson said.

Del Oro Principal Dan Gayaldo said the school administration was never informed about the spitting incident.

“To our knowledge, it was not reported to anyone on campus,” he said.

Bridget Farren, Del Oro assistant principal, said the school will get involved to rectify such situations if they are informed.

Olson said after Hannah’s first attempt to take her life, when she returned to E.V. Cain Charter Middle School, “A boy who didn’t even know her walked up to her and said, ‘Why didn’t you finish it?’”

“Those were wounds to a girl that the basic problem Hannah had about herself was low self esteem,” Olson said, “even though she was so accomplished.

“Tolerance isn’t just a word; it’s a matter of life and death. The old ditty of sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me isn’t true. Words can kill.”

E.V. Cain Principal Randy Ittner said the incident at E.V. Cain was reported to the assistant principal and was dealt with, but how it was handled with the student is private due to confidentiality laws.

“When there is an incident like that,” Ittner said, “we will talk to students about the expectations, about bullying, and we talk about being safe, respectful and responsible every day.”

Neither Ittner nor the school counselor, Melinda Call, had been aware she attempted suicide while she was attending E.V. Cain, as her father said, though Call said a student told her Hannah had been expressing “suicidal ideation.” They immediately contacted the father, who got her outside counseling, she said.

Michele Schuetz, superintendent of Auburn Union School District, said people in the district, especially E.V. Cain teachers, were “horrified” to hear of Hannah’s death.

Schuetz said this is an opportunity to make people aware that listening carefully is important to supporting “all of our youth.”

“We try to be very proactive with our administrators and our counselors in working with students who, for whatever reason, are suffering from depression, are feeling bullied, or, for whatever reason, do not have good self esteem or confidence,” she said. “Do they hear everything? No. But this is a good way to heighten awareness.”

 

Finding a way to keep going

Amos Olson’s message to the audience Tuesday was one of societal conscience.

That night, he did not talk about the two incidents that could have been characterized as bullying. At the gathering, he said he read the lyrics of a song on Hannah’s recently played list, “Sail” by AWOLNATION, which she had listened to 254 times, according to the music player.

“The short of that song was just basically one that encouraged suicide as a means of dealing with one’s problems,” Olson said of his interpretation of the lyrics.

What he didn’t want to do was to vilify the group as being evil, or pin the song as the reason the idea to take her life was planted in her mind, rather he wanted to send a message that society needs to be careful of what it popularizes and consumes, he said.

And that extends to violent movies and videogames, he added.

While some people can handle those types of media, others may internalize it in a negative way, Olson said.

“I believe what Hannah wanted,” he said, “was to make the world a more peaceful, beautiful place where people weren’t pressured or where violence and death wasn’t extolled and our standards were a little higher in terms of what we thought we could say and do to one another.”

Olson said making himself available Tuesday night proved to be a healing experience as he was embraced by young people who loved Hannah.

“They said they wanted to do something,” he said. “And for me to be able to ask them would they help me make the world a kinder place … some of the students said, ‘You have made us so aware of what we have been doing, listening to and saying.’

“The key is to keep it going, and I told them whatever good they could make out of keeping it going would be how we keep Hannah alive in terms of what she would have wanted to do to the world around her.”

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews