Evan Kobayashi was an excellent student, a talented baseball player and a considerate classmate. The high school student was “a humble, fun-loving, gentle soul,” said his mother, Kelli Kobayashi. “He was very kind-hearted and always put others ahead of himself.”
Tragically, Evan was also good at masking his feelings. He took his own life on Aug. 30, just before what was to be his senior year.
A state-run program to help keep Michigan students safe. OK2SAY enables students to confidentially report threatening behavior, and coordinates law enforcement and school systems to respond to the threat.
His suicide — one of at least four in Kent County public schools last year – hit people hard in the close-knit Cedar Springs community. It also energized new district efforts to protect students and support their mental health – efforts Evan might well have helped promote.
The district has adopted OK2SAY, a statewide hotline that enables students to confidentially report bullying, threats of violence, signs of potential suicide and other problems. State Attorney General Bill Schuette recently introduced the program to a packed high school gymnasium, where Kelli Kobayashi and Evan’s father, Toshi, sat in the front row.
It was an emotional day for them – but so is every day with Evan gone, Kelli Kobayashi said. She hopes OK2SAY will promote student mental health, make their safety a top priority and help prevent other tragedies.
“I do think that it might be able to save a life,” said Kelli, mother of two other Cedar Springs students. “If it saved one person’s life, it’s a program well worth having.”
Supporting the Whole Child
The issue of student mental health was tragically underlined when, three weeks after the assembly, a former eighth-grader took his own life this week, according to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
In addition to OK2SAY, Cedar Springs has adopted other programs to support student safety and mental health. They include a newly formed Peer Listeners group at the high school, a “Live, Laugh, Love” suicide-prevention program and four new counselors for at-risk students, Superintendent Laura VanDuyn noted.
“I am a firm believer in supporting the whole child – social, emotional, physical – in order to support our students in academics,” VanDuyn said. “First and foremost, we want them to be healthy and safe and secure individuals.”
As elsewhere, Cedar students contend with problems such as sexting, drugs and bullying, she said, adding OK2SAY “can be the conduit to getting kids the help they need, even in a place like Cedar Springs where we wouldn’t expect these things to be.”
Jo Spry, a Cedar Springs assistant superintendent and former superintendent in Cadillac, lobbied legislators to bring the program to Michigan after helping to implement a similar program in Colorado, called Safe2Tell, following the 1999 Columbine massacre.
The program helped prevent a suicide at the high school where she was principal, she said.
“I saw firsthand what an impact it had,” said Spry, who received a standing ovation at the gym presentation. “It was just so beneficial (that) I saw a need for that kind of intervention in Michigan.”
Since becoming law in 2014, OK2SAY has been presented to 2,620 public and private schools statewide, including 232 in Kent County. It has yielded nearly 3,900 tips by phone, text or online, resulting in the prevention of multiple suicides and at least one planned attack on a school, officials say. Over half were reports of bullying or cyberbullying.
“It’s about changing the culture of the state from ‘Don’t be a narc or a snitch,’ to, ‘Hey, it’s OK to say something to save a life,’” Schuette said. “Schools need to be places of learning, not violence.”
Here to Care for One Another
Students active in the new Peer Listeners group say they support OK2SAY as a way for students to report problems without fear of repercussions. Senior Jessica Durall said she was motivated to start the group after the death of her friend Evan. She hopes it will help students open up to group members — who were trained to listen and refer classmates to counseling if need be — and that along with OK2SAY it will promote students’ mental health.
“They’ll be able to trust the people they’re surrounded with,” Jessica said, adding she hopes “it will lead to bigger things so we never have anything like that happen again.”
Jessica had a big hug for Kelli Kobayashi following the OK2SAY presentation. Kelli strongly supports Peer Listeners, and said Jessica “has a heart of gold, and a lot of care for other people.”
Her 17-year-old son had that kind of caring heart, too, said Kelli, a speech therapist for Sparta Area Schools. He felt he could help people with their problems and was thinking about becoming a psychologist. Kelli hopes OK2SAY fosters a broader culture of caring and raise awareness of mental-health issues.
“It helps to promote a sense of community, of unity, of knowing we’re here to care for one another,” she said.
She’s seen that kind of caring in the wake of Evan’s death, through spiritual support and kind acts. A cousin set up a Kobayashi Fund that will be used to positively impact the school baseball program. At a recent baseball game between Cedar Springs and Sparta, players honored Evan and wore armbands bearing his uniform number, 13.
“We’ve had an outpouring of love and support from the community, and we’re very grateful for the ways in which people have tried to hold us up,” said Kelli, speaking through tears.
“We just need to continue to unite and find ways in which we can support our kids, and help them cope with the complicated life in which they live,” she added. “And give them the skills to thrive and survive.”