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Part 1 in a series on suicide
Helping Rim Country become a suicide-aware community

What are the signs someone may be at risk for suicide and how can you help?

These questions were central to the safeTALK Suicide Alertness for Everybody training given by Jake Gardner of Community Bridges, Inc. in Payson last week.

“We need to create a foundation where it’s OK to talk about suicide in an open and direct way,” Gardner said.

Suicide is a growing health problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. It was responsible for nearly 45,000 deaths in 2016, with approximately one death every 12 minutes.

And in the Rim Country, the per capita rate of suicide is markedly higher than the state average.

Payson’s age-adjusted, 2017 suicide rate of 58.9 per 100,000 people compares to the Gila County rate of 37.6, the state rate of 17.6 and a national rate of 13.4 per 100,000 people. (ADHS report)

But there is hope. Intervention can save lives, presenters said.

“Most people thinking about it are not sure they want to injure themselves,” Gardner said. “Most want help in staying alive and invite others consciously or unconsciously to help them.”

Gardner called these signals “invitations.” They are often subtle and therefore missed, not taken seriously or avoided.

People who talk about killing themselves are reaching out for help, he said. They are not less serious than those who do not say anything.

While stigma still surrounds suicide and the fear that talking to someone about suicide might push them to kill themselves, Gardner said that is not the case.

“We don’t put the idea in their head by asking the question.”

Suicide can affect anyone

Suicide impacts people across all demographics.

If you are alert, you can recognize the signs that someone needs help and get them it sooner.

Dealing with suicidal thoughts alone can increase the risk. Here are four things to watch for:

See, hear, sense and listen

See their actions. Are they careless, moody, withdrawing, abusing alcohol or drugs, missing work and posting about dying on social media?

Hear what they say. Do they feel alone, like a burden with no sense of purpose, looking to escape physical or emotional pain, wanting to go to sleep and never wake up?

Sense their feelings. Are they desperate, hopeless, numb, ashamed, depressed?

Learn their life situations. Is there abuse, rejection, loss, suicide experience, death of a loved one, a pet or financial problems?

How to help

The TALK in safeTALK, a program developed by LivingWorks, has several tips to recognize and respond to invitations:

Tell — If you are having thoughts of suicide, tell someone in the clearest way you can.

Ask — “Are you thinking about suicide?”

Listen — “Let’s talk about this. I am listening. This is important.” Listen with all your senses. Offer empathy.

KeepSafe — Talk about their safety plan. “We need extra help. I want to connect you with someone who can help you KeepSafe.”

“A person can have a lot of fear about asking directly about suicide,” said Gardner. “Taking the gray out of asking directly helps and shows the other person we are willing to take that step.”

The best way to tell if someone is thinking about suicide is to ask them. There may be another problem unrelated to suicide.

If they are suicidal

“People may want to talk about why suicide has come into their life,” Gardner said. “Someone has finally taken up their invitation. Persons with thoughts of suicide can talk themselves out of acting on suicide if they have someone to talk to who listens.”

He said it is important to acknowledge the pain they are experiencing without judgment. Give eye contact and non-verbal cues to show you’re listening. Don’t agree to keep their suicidal thoughts secret.

After listening, reach out for professional support.

“Our job is to be suicide alert. To listen, learn about the situation and hand the person off to another trained person,” he said.

If they refuse to meet a professional, contact one anyway. Stay with them.

Never leave a suicidal person alone, but if there is an immediate threat, never put yourself in danger either, he said.

When help arrives, explain the situation with the person present.

Successful suicide intervention is possible, however, not all suicides can be prevented. There may be situations where the at-risk person is secretive and does not exhibit discernible signals. Some make a snap decision to complete suicide, but that is more rare.

We can create a culture where people feel free to talk about suicide with others. We can overcome the stigma, myths and avoidance at-risk people may feel around suicide and get them support. We can help those bereaved by suicide to heal.

Imagine a suicide-safer community where people are aware, alert and open to reaching out.

Community Bridges, Inc. offers safeTALK training to organizations and businesses in Gila County. For more information, contact Jake Gardner at or call 928-468-0022 ext. 4312.

Look for upcoming stories on statistics, risk factors and myths; warning signs, intervention and hope; and support for attempted suicide survivors and those bereaved by suicide.

Conservancy group transfers Doll Baby Ranch to Forest Service

Access to some of central Arizona’s most treasured wild trails, streams and outdoor recreation areas was preserved the last week of March thanks to a partnership between Western Rivers Conservancy and the Tonto National Forest.

On Wednesday, Western Rivers Conservancy conveyed the 149-acre Doll Baby Ranch to the agency, securing a recreational gateway to more than 250 square miles of the Mazatzal Wilderness and surrounding Tonto National Forest, according to a press release.

The ranch, which Western Rivers Conservancy purchased in 2017, traces a mile of the East Verde River and is a haven for fish and wildlife.

“The East Verde is the finest arm of the Verde River and an important freshwater lifeline for the diverse fish and wildlife of the Tonto National Forest,” said Zach Spector, project operations director for Western Rivers Conservancy. “We are thrilled with the outcome of this effort, which will bolster one of the most important freshwater ecosystems in the state, while also meeting the needs of a wide variety of recreational users.”

The Tonto National Forest now controls the road to the Doll Baby trailhead, which is a primary access route into the adjacent Mazatzal Wilderness, the Verde Wild and Scenic River Corridor and the Arizona National Historic Trail.

The transfer also secures access to the Crackerjack Mine Loop Road, a popular off-highway vehicle (OHV) destination — access that could have been restricted to private use had Western Rivers Conservancy not purchased the property.

“This project is a huge win for visitors to Arizona’s spectacular Rim Country, (for) people who hike, ride horses, hunt and explore off-highway vehicle roads,” said Debbie Cress, Payson district ranger. “More than 5 million people visit the Tonto each year, and it is critically important that the Doll Baby road and trail access remains open to all.”

By conserving a key stretch of the East Verde River, the project will also benefit at least 10 native fish species, including Colorado pikeminnow, Gila topminnow and razorback sucker, all federally endangered.

The ranch and the surrounding national forest are also designated critical habitat for the narrow-headed garter snake, northern Mexican garter snake, Mexican spotted owl and Chiricahua leopard frog — all threatened species.

Conservation of the Doll Baby Ranch was made possible with funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

“Our efforts on the East Verde River received critical funding through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and we are especially grateful to the late Senator John McCain for his ardent support of this project,” Spector said.

Courtesy of

Western Rivers Conservancy

About the partners

Western Rivers Conservancy acquires lands along rivers throughout the West to conserve critical habitat and to create or improve public access for compatible use and enjoyment. By cooperating with local agencies and organizations and by applying decades of land acquisition experience, WRC secures the health of whole ecosystems. WRC has protected hundreds of miles of stream frontage on great western rivers, including the Rio Grande, Yampa, John Day, Gunnison, Salmon, Snake, North Umpqua, Klamath and Madison Rivers. To learn more, visit

Tonto National Forest encompasses nearly 3 million acres of rugged and spectacularly beautiful country, ranging from Saguaro cactus-studded desert to pine-forested mountains beneath the Mogollon Rim. As the fifth largest forest in the United States, the Tonto is home to more than 400 vertebrate species, including 21 listed as threatened, endangered or state sensitive.

School survey
New superintendent: Experience to take on big problems


With everything.

Lots and lots of experience.

Because we’ve got lots of problems.

That’s the gist of what 525 Payson parents, students and school employees said they seek in the district’s new superintendent.

The Payson School Board acted in harmony with that advice when it hired former Jefferson Davis County Schools Superintendent Stan Rentz to take over from departing Superintendent Greg Wyman.

The people who filled out surveys during the superintendent search were staff (46 percent), parents (54 percent) and students (33 percent). The numbers add up to more than 100 percent, because some people fell into multiple categories. Strikingly, only about 5 percent of the people filling out the surveys were community members without children in the schools.

The thousands of responses to the searching questions revealed the immense challenges facing Rentz when he takes over in July. He recently retired from his 25-year career in his Georgia school district, which has 3,300 students, compared to Payson’s 2,300. He has accepted a $115,000 annual, two-year contract to run the district.

The answers on the questionnaire stressed a deep desire for someone with broad experience and an ability to inspire staff, engage parents, involve the community — as well as boost student achievement and motivation.

The answers also revealed a certain bewildering inconsistency. Many people described the district as a place with deep community support and great teachers who love kids supported by an administration working to make the most of limited resources. Others described a district struggling to cope with the problems of poor families, indifferent parents, unmotivated students, burned out teachers and indifferent administrators.

So here’s an attempt to summarize and make sense of the blizzard of responses from students, faculty and parents during the search for a new superintendent. The top two responses are given for each.

Desired leadership qualities

• 53 percent said experience in motivating staff and improving morale.

• 30 percent wanted a leader who will pitch in at any level.

Academic programs:

• 41 percent wanted a leader with direct experience in boosting scores.

• 37 percent wanted experience in planning “continuous improvement.”

Board and superintendent relations:

• 47 percent wanted honest, transparent communications.

• 38 percent want Rentz to be the face of the schools in the community.

Staff development:

• 56 percent want experience in recruiting and retaining top staff.

• 37 percent want demonstrated skill in supervising employees.

Decision making:

• 53 percent want Rentz to include staff, community members and students.

• 43 percent want a strong management team to involve other administrators.

Support services and facilities:

• 63 percent: Experience in planning and managing budgets

• 53 percent: Experience maintaining budget stability in a troubled district.

The most interesting responses came to a question asking to list both the district’s strengths and weaknesses.

The questions were open-ended, unlike the first part of the survey. This means the responses were all over the place and much harder to summarize, unlike the two-issue format of the first part of the survey.

Great teachers, community support, career classes and use of technology were some of the most common things mentioned when asked about the district’s strengths.

Teacher and administrator turnover, low morale, large class sizes, nepotism, resistance to change, lack of resources, indifference to children’s specialize needs and uninvolved or hostile parents proved recurrent themes when listing the district’s weaknesses.

So here are some of the responses to those two key questions, selected here mostly because they either reflected a frequently mentioned theme or raised a specific point in an articulate way.

To see a copy of the full questionnaire, go to the Roundup’s website, find this story and click on the attached PDF.

What are the district’s key strengths?

“Using technology in the classroom. Offering college classes at the high school.”

“We have amazing staff in every department.”

“Honestly I don’t think we have any strengths besides the teachers.”

“We live in a great community, which does support us most of the time.”

“CTE classes and class diversity.”

“The employees are very good when it comes to ‘finding a way’ to get things done whether there is a shortfall in budget, or we are short on personnel. Many teachers have an excellent attitude, and you can tell they are really into what they do for the kids. Many are local, and I believe there is a certain level of loyalty to the ‘home town,’ and giving their best for the local kids.”

“Excellent teachers, technology use in the classroom, caring and supportive staff.”

“Great teachers, great leadership.”

“The current superintendent has done an excellent job in light of the depressed financial culture of schools in Arizona. He has saved jobs and can prepare for future shortfalls. Academic scores have increased.”

“I did appreciate the efficiency, professionalism and kindness everyone took with getting our son enrolled and his IEP processed through so he could start receiving services needed. We’ve been so impressed with all the staff and faculty we’ve worked with from the pre-school teachers, the psychologist, the aides, the bus drivers, the bus aides, the special services coordinator, the office staff, etc. We’ve never felt like we were a nuisance or not being cared for.”

“I also think our district has put a big emphasis on making kids feel ‘seen’ and cared for. I think loneliness is an epidemic in this generation and we have yet to see the effects of such a dangerous and devastating state of mind. Lastly, my children have wonderful teachers who care and make every effort to engage children and ensure they are getting a good education.”

What are the greatest challenges

facing the district?

“Tracking donations that are turned into the schools then transferred to the district. These are often deposited into wrong accounts, money gets ‘lost,’ parents have to track it down on behalf of coaches, etc. It seems there could be a more efficient way to do this.”

“Many students are significantly behind academically and socially. There are tons of high schoolers who are writing and reading at a middle school level. Middle school students aren’t reading on level. There is a general lack of knowledge when it comes to equality; students frequently use discriminatory language and don’t seem to even be aware that this is unacceptable. Most students do not seem motivated.”

“We have a high turnaround of teachers, principals, and superintendents.”

“Morale is very low at some campuses/departments. There are few resources in the town of Payson. One example of how this impacts the district is that it is hard to get help for students struggling with emotional issues.”

“Collusion, nepotism.”

“Competitive pay. Nepotism (good-ol’ boy club in lieu of quality staff). Extracurricular activities to give students an out instead of stuck at home with druggy parents.”

“Challenges for our school is unfairly distributing funding to sports and not artistic or extracurricular/CTE programs.”

“Students are passed on to the next grade level even if they fail or are passed even though they do not know the information. Lack of communication on all levels.”

“Lack of support for problem students/ strong discipline program. The unrealistic expectation from parents — Being rude to teachers, posting things on Facebook that are not true.”

“Budget — staff shouldn’t have to bring in their own supplies. Salaries — pay more to recruit and retain quality employees.”

“1. Attracting and retaining quality teachers with the low wages we pay. 2. Balancing the low pay of our teachers with the very high pay of the superintendent.”

“1. Too much emphasis on “slow learners,” the removal of many AP classes, the gifted program, and general lack of engagement for gifted or advanced students. 2. Bias, small-mindedness, and too much of a desire to ‘maintain the status-quo.’ 3. Stagnation: Teachers and administrators feel secure in their positions and have grown too big for their britches, believing that the bare minimum is all that is required and no parent or student can speak against them.”

“All I can say is that the school is doing an awesome job.”

“We don’t have great teachers for certain kids that have different thinking processes. We don’t have enough teachers and classes that students like, so when we come to school it is like we are the ‘Walking Dead.’”

“Morale is low in the district, staff in the schools don’t always feel administrators are supportive.”

“K-2 school is often overlooked, the building is neglected and there is only one administrative staff member to deal with every issue. High need for special education services.”

“Students are not motivated. Yes, there are students involved in sports and clubs, and when we have a motivational speaker come in, students are motivated for that week. However, students are not motivated to be at school and to succeed in their work. I feel this school needs to make things a little more interesting rather than just a constant serious mood.”

“Large class sizes, not enough support staff.”

“1. Lack of writing curriculum 2. Lack of services for student coming from trauma 3. Professional development is not focused on teaching teachers how to be better teachers ... it is just a staff meeting. People complaining about everything in life.”

“The board has a severe inability to take the staff into account — a T-shirt and breakfast every year, while nice, doesn’t keep staff. The board also is not transparent — holding a public board meeting every month is not the same as keeping staff appraised.”“Lack of discipline in the classroom and school. My daughter says students smoke e-cigarettes in the classroom! Lack of contemporary and engaging courses and curricula. Complete lack of counseling, both in academics and personal student issues. The counselors are just schedulers. There seems to be a big divide in graduating students--one echelon goes on to ASU, the other gets stuck here in Payson working fast food. Thank goodness I am able to provide both academic tutoring and emotional/psych/career support for my kids, as well as intervening countless times on behalf of my kids to get the system to work with/for them. What about the parents who can’t?”

Contact the writer at

Peter Aleshire/Roundup  

Based on more than 500 responses from parents, students and staff, new Superintendent Stan Rentz has a number of issues to address in the school district.

Main Street Dreamin’

Payson councils have had big dreams for Main Street for more than 30 years, but not much has happened.

Can the new council do any better?

Depends on who you talk to.

All seven Payson Town Council members that the Roundup spoke to say they want to add restaurants and shops to draw pedestrians down the street to Green Valley Park, however, each councilor has a different perspective and priority.

The current council sounds split between those skeptical about any big plans for Main Street and a narrow majority supporting ambitious and expensive projects to lure the traffic needed to sustain a retail renaissance on the long-suffering, mile-long link between Highway 87 and Green Valley Park.

Councilor Barbara Underwood and Vice Mayor Janell Sterner both recall the days when the now struggling Swiss Village Shops formed the retail core of the town, especially if people wanted to get out of their cars and walk. They’re both skeptical about whether anything the town can do will turn the Main Street string of stores, businesses and services into a draw for tourists.

Mayor Tom Morrissey also sounds skeptical.

“When I look at this, it doesn’t make sense to me. We have the main businesses at the Main Street and Highway 260 interchange — and I think we should go with Main Street as the historical district,” he said.

On the other hand, Councilors Jim Ferris, Chris Higgins, Suzy Tubbs-Avakian and Steve Smith all want to push for a public investment that would finally spark the kind of visitor and retail-oriented makeover of Main Street the town has sought for years.

They advocate big ideas like creating a stream bordered by bike and walking paths down the dusty American Gulch, overhauling the South McLane Road connection between the event center and Main Street and developing things like a conference center and hotel to create more foot traffic.

Clearly, the council has yet to hammer out any kind of a consensus on the fate of Main Street.

So here’s an overview of where they stand based on lengthy interviews the Roundup had with each council member.

Skeptics who remember the glory days of

Swiss Village

Longtime residents Underwood and Sterner remember fondly when the heart of Payson was the Swiss Village Shops. They said Swiss Village already has the infrastructure, such as parking to support lots of visitors.

Underwood said Swiss Village was the Main Street of Payson back in the day.

“That was why everybody drove to Payson — they knew the Swiss Village,” she said. “It was just what you would envision of a Main Street — it had the only candle factory, an ice cream store and a restaurant on the end. It had the doughnut place — they were the best doughnuts in town.”

She said Main Street would need anchor businesses to thrive.

“If there was something like a main focal point on Main Street, it would incentivize all these little shops to be there,” she said.

Sterner worked in the coffee shop at Swiss Village in her youth.

“To me this is your Main Street,” she said.

Right now, Main Street mostly offers a range set of services.

“I can get my hair cut while my car is in the shop, then get my teeth done, take my pet to the vet and go to thrift shops,” she said.

Both said the parking is better at Swiss Village than on Main Street. But they admitted the moving events like the rodeo out of Rumsey Park undercut the lure of the Swiss Village. When those Rumsey Park events got too big, the town built the event center across from the Mazatzal Casino.

Still dreaming

the big dream

Smith advocates for upgrading the event center as Main Street’s draw. The audience for events could then spill over to Main Street, Green Valley Park and even a future river walk on the American Gulch.

“If the event center had a conference center, an indoor arena and its own RV park — then you would have something that could spur development,” he said.

Higgins agrees developing the event center area would spur re-development on Main Street.

“Looking at McLane to the event center — if that area got developed there would be a draw,” he said. “Things like a hotel out there and other things would start up Main Street.”

Tubbs-Avakian believes completing the spur of the McLane Road from the Beeline Highway at the casino light to Main Street would act as the catalyst for development on Main Street.

“It would drop down from the hill. You would still come up over the mountain and see it, yet your focal point would be Green Valley Park. That would be a way to get people down there,” she said.

Ferris envisions a community center and river walk complete with a waterway deep and wide enough to carry kayaks and canoes.

“That whole American Gulch it would be nice to dredge it out,” he said. “If you had that and filled it up and down with canoes and kayaks. If you could go out and grab a boat and go out ... and tie up your canoe at a restaurant’s dock — the whole thing, I just see it,” he said.

Rolling with the punches

So lacking a council consensus, the town will likely continue what it’s been doing for years — taking advantage of targets of opportunity, whenever people who want to start new businesses come to town.

Morrissey said he’s had private investors contact him about upgrading Main Street and the Gulch.

“On Monday two gentlemen came to me for a blueprint with a suggestions on how to develop Main Street,” he said. “One gentleman was responsible for Mill Avenue (in Tempe).”

Many of the councilors agreed upgrading infrastructure such as broadband service plays a key role in beefing up Main Street.

“We could have a lot of telecommuters,” said Tubbs-Avakian. “I have a lot of (real estate) buyers who say, ‘The internet is not fast enough for what I do.’ We’re limiting ourselves there.”

Whatever happens, Payson will experience growth pains with the C.C. Cragin pipeline tap opening sometime in April. Coupled with the sanitary district’s upgrades, Payson is poised to grow.

The question is, will Main Street grow with it?

“I think Jim Ferris brought up a good point,” said Smith. “Come up with a plan and commit to it or forget about it.”