At his home in Scarborough, Daniel Mercer says he hopes something positive comes from the loss of his adoptive son, Sam, to suicide. “I hope it can be a healing thing for the community and start a conversation around the subject,” said Mercer, an associate chaplain at the Long Creek Youth Development Center. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

The suicide of a Scarborough High School senior Friday has raised questions about how the school district handled concerns that Sam Mercer was contemplating taking his own life and what prevention policies it has to protect other students.

Two days before Sam died, the Maine Legislature passed a resolve that will require school districts to adopt suicide prevention protocols in the coming school year. The Maine Department of Education recommends that districts have such protocols, but only about 25 percent of districts have complied, and it’s unclear whether Scarborough High is among them.

Daniel Mercer said he knew his adopted son had been thinking about suicide in recent months. Sam’s wrestling coach told him in January that Sam had mentioned it. Mercer talked about it with Sam twice afterward – including once during a shared visit with Sam’s therapist. Both times, Sam was positive and convincing.

“Sam was really good at throwing people off his trail about what he was thinking and feeling,” Mercer said. “He had been very clear that he wasn’t suicidal. I know Sam was dealing with many teen issues, but he wasn’t moping around. There were things he was engaged in and looking forward to. Graduation. Driver’s ed. Going to Ethiopia to visit his parents.”

But in the days since Sam’s death, Mercer has been surprised to learn that last fall, one of Sam’s friends told school staff that Sam was thinking about suicide, and the friend had been assured that it would be addressed. It was shocking news to a father searching for answers and understanding when both are in short supply.

“The school never notified me,” Mercer said Monday. “I was talking about it with the principal and superintendent today. I’m upset because I wish I would have known. I had no idea he was seriously thinking about it. But I’m not blaming anyone at this point. The school has been so great to my son. I’m having a hard enough time not blaming myself.”

A POWERFUL IMPACT AT SCHOOL

Sam Mercer had overcome great challenges in his young life. Born in Ethiopia, he lost his left leg to an infection that required amputation when he was less than a month old. His father put him in an orphanage when he was 6. His adoptive American parents gave him up after three years. He lived in a variety of Colorado foster homes and schools before Daniel Mercer brought him to Scarborough last fall.

Mercer, an associate chaplain at the Long Creek Youth Development Center, is part of a national registry of foster and adoptive parents. He has been a single foster father to 15 other boys, six of whom he adopted. He and Sam met a few times in Colorado and Maine before Sam decided to move here. Sam’s adoption was completed in February and he turned 18 on March 26.

Sam made a big impact in a short time at Scarborough High, where he inspired many with his skills on the wrestling mat, his role as manager of the football team and his ability to write compelling rap lyrics. Passionate about cooking, he worked at a local restaurant and had been accepted to Johnson & Wales University, a culinary school in Providence, Rhode Island.

Sam Mercer laughs with a Scarborough teammate while tightening his wrestling shoe during a practice in December. Sam lost his left leg to an infection shortly after he was born in Ethiopia. Staff file photo by Ben McCanna

Despite his often outgoing and jovial personality, Sam was very shy and introverted, his father said. He struggled to connect with people and wanted more than anything to have a girlfriend and go to the prom.

About a week before he died, a high school staff member questioned Sam about a rap lyric he wrote with the line, “I’m going to be 6 feet under,” Mercer said. Sam assured the staff member that it was just a lyric, nothing more, Mercer said. The staff member notified Sam’s therapist and the two of them discussed it, but again, no one notified Mercer, he said, this time because Sam was an adult.

On the night he died, Sam texted a female friend, alluding to his fateful decision. She immediately told her parents, who called Mercer, who was on his way back from a friend’s baby shower in Boston. Scarborough police rushed to the house, but it was too late.

Daniel Mercer holds a letter that Sam wrote to him for Christmas this past year. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

“I still wish I had known more,” Mercer said Monday. “I think everybody did their job and assumed Sam was OK.”

Superintendent Julie Kukenberger and Scarborough High Principal David Creech declined to discuss specifics of Sam’s case. They also didn’t respond to questions about the district’s written policies on suicide prevention training or intervention protocols. Repeated requests for copies of existing policies or training materials went unanswered.

SUICIDE PREVENTION TRAINING

Since 2015-16, all Scarborough school employees have undergone two-hour suicide prevention awareness training as required by law, said Assistant Superintendent Jo Anne Sizemore. Each participant was given resource materials developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Maine and the state Department of Education.

“Our efforts at this time are focused on supporting the Mercer family, our students, staff and our community,” Kukenberger said in a written statement Monday afternoon.

“Since learning of Sam’s death, our Crisis Response Team has developed and implemented a support and communication plan for students and staff,” Kukenberger said. “As part of our response to this crisis, the team is processing all of the information associated with this tragedy.”

Grief counselors were at the high school Monday, when students decorated Sam’s locker and created a flower-filled memorial overlooking the football field. A memorial vigil is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on the football field, and Sam’s funeral will be held at 3 p.m. Thursday at Eastpoint Christian Church in South Portland.

A GoFundMe web campaign to raise money for Sam’s funeral had tallied more than $14,000 in donations by Monday evening. The campaign was started by Taylor Banks, one of Sam’s friends, who said she hopes to raise enough money so Sam’s father can bring his ashes back to Ethiopia.

“He promised Sam he’d bring him there and he has to fulfill that promise,” Banks said.

COMMUNITY MEETING PLANNED

In a separate email to the school community, Kukenberger explained that the high school staff met Monday morning to prepare, and again in the afternoon to debrief and refine a plan for Tuesday. Individual and group counseling will continue Tuesday, with additional support from trained counselors, trauma intervention volunteers and NAMI Maine.

She also invited community members and students in grades 6 to 12 to a community presentation on April 24 to “learn more about tragedies such as this and support one another.” The 6 p.m. gathering in the Wentworth School cafeteria will be facilitated by Greg Marley, clinical director of NAMI Maine.

“Mr. Marley will address the grief following an unexpected student death, and the different ways we can care for ourselves, our students, and our community in the aftermath of this tragedy,” Kukenberger said. “This talk is an opportunity for debriefing the loss to our community and increasing awareness of the risk of future tragedies.”

In the days ahead, Daniel Mercer said he will be looking for something positive to come from the loss of his son, especially in the town’s schools.

“I hope it can be a healing thing for the community and start a conversation around the subject,” Mercer said. “I hope they learn from this and become much more proactive in the future. And if there was something they should have done that wasn’t done, I hope they address that, too.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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Twitter: KelleyBouchard

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