Islanders grapple with tragic death of Vashon High School student

Palmerston Burk was a freshman at Vashon High School. - Courtesy Photo
Palmerston Burk was a freshman at Vashon High School.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Last Wednesday night, Kathleen Gilligan and her 14-year-old son worked out together, then sat down and watched the presidential debate, discussing the performance of the two contenders afterward.

Her son, a new member of Vashon High School’s debate team, was “engaged and thoughtful,” Gilligan recalled. “I thought, ‘Look at my kid and who he’s becoming.’ I was so impressed by his thoughtfulness.”

The next morning, Palmerston Burk, a freshman at VHS, shot himself on the front porch of the Reddings Beach home he shared with his mother and older sister.

Now, as Gilligan confronts her immense grief, she has a message for the many Islanders who, like her, are trying to make sense of her son’s tragic death.

“It’s not something that anyone saw coming. And that’s what I want the community to know,” she said during a telephone interview Friday. “This is something that was completely senseless. No one saw it coming.”

Her son was smart, handsome, athletic and engaged, she said.

“If this could happen to Palmerston Burk, it could happen to anyone. … He had everything going for him.”

Indeed, Palmer, as he was known, was an active teenager who appeared to be flourishing. Over the summer, he attended Vashon’s Junior Crew Rowing Camp, placing first at a regatta in Greenlake. A few weeks ago, he quit rowing to focus on wrestling, a sport he began when he was 5. He was in debate. He was doing well in school. He had lots of friends.

His Facebook page is filled with beautiful photos: Palmer grinning as he carries his boat after the Greenlake regatta; clad in a wetsuit and staring out at the water after a day of surfing; sitting at his kitchen table, surrounded by friends.

“He seemed to be an even-keeled, very well-adjusted young man,” said David Chapman, who coached him as a young wrestler and was looking forward to coaching him in high school.

“I can’t really speak to how he was adapting from middle school to high school, but certainly last year, he was flourishing,” Chapman added.

But as Gilligan sees it now, “something overwhelmed my son.”

He was sad about a relationship that had ended and found himself unexpectedly home alone on Thursday because it was a two-hour late start to the school day. In fact, he had headed off to the bus at the usual time, texting his mother when he realized his mistake before walking back to an empty house, Gilligan said.

Many in the days following his death have talked about what happened in that hour or so he was home alone before he died, but Gilligan said she’s opting not to discuss the details publicly. What she did share is that her son texted a friend, telling her he was about to take his life. And in a remarkable show of maturity, the girl — a sophomore at VHS — instantly called 911, she said.

Two deputies from the King County Sheriff’s Office responded, reaching the house in nine minutes — not soon enough.

“None of us really understand what happened,” Gilligan said.

Palmer’s death is the first teen suicide on Vashon in more than three decades, and the news hit students and teachers at both Vashon High School and McMurray Middle School hard, where many knew him well.

Michael Soltman, the school district’s superintendent, said that Father Tryphon, a chaplain for Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, appeared at the high school at noon — about five minutes before lunch was to begin — to inform them of Palmer’s death. Knowing that word was already starting to get out, Soltman and VHS Principal Susan Hanson quickly pulled the district’s counseling team together, called Vashon Youth & Family Services and within a matter of minutes had counselors available for teens who were already starting to gather in tight, tearful circles.

“Going right into lunch, we knew we had to have a rapid response,” Soltman said.

Soltman and Hanson placed most of the counselors at tables in the library and then began escorting students who seemed to need support into the room. Teachers, meanwhile, walked around the campus, supporting the clusters of kids they found. Science teacher Tom DeVries, who was off that day, showed up and spent the afternoon in the parking lot, Soltman added, trying to make sure kids headed to the library or didn’t leave the campus unattended.

All told, about 20 therapists and ministers came to the school that afternoon, many within minutes of hearing the news and many volunteering their time.

“We wanted to take care of any kid who knew Palmer and was struggling,” Soltman said.

Soltman and Hanson also quickly wrote up a statement and issued it to teachers, so that teachers had “a common language” to use in classrooms, Soltman said; they were asked to “use their discretion,” Soltman added, making an announcement and discussing Palmer’s death if they felt it was appropriate.

“The freshman class was the most affected. They were very tearful and pretty overwhelmed,” Soltman said.

Teachers at both schools also struggled with the news, and some wept openly in their classrooms, students reported. Soltman said he brought in several substitutes so that teachers could stay home on Friday. “We wanted them to get a break if they needed it,” he said.

Gilligan, meanwhile, opened up her home to Palmer’s friends — a move that parents close to the situation found remarkable. Thursday night, several came to Gilligan’s house, where they sat in Palmer’s bedroom, talked about their friend, wept, hugged and supported one another, she said.

“They were all traumatized. I feel really responsible for these kids,” she said.

Ellen Call, whose son was close to Palmer, went with her son to Gilligan’s home that night. “I was really amazed by her fortitude,” she said of Gilligan.

Brad Roter, a family physician and another close friend of the family, said he’s been moved in the days following Palmer’s death by the way teens have shared their feelings and supported each other. About 35 teens went to another family’s home Thursday night, where the parents built a bonfire. The students, most of them 9th-graders, sat around that fire in silence for 90 minutes, he said.

When his son got up to leave, Roter added, he hugged every one of the students there, telling them all that he loved them. Other students — including some not close to the situation — have called his son to offer support.

“It’s been an incredible response by the community,” Roter said.

Like Gilligan, Roter said he believes there were few if any signs that Palmer was in despair. “They knew he was sad, but no one saw this coming,” he said.

Born in Tacoma, Palmer spent nearly his entire life on Vashon, moving to the Island when he was 2. His family — his father, Lyman Burk lives on Vashon, too — is well-known and well-established on the Island; his sister attends Annie Wright Academy, a private school in Tacoma.

As a young boy, he was rambunctious and playful, friends recalled, and as he grew older, he became, like his father, a software engineer, much more thoughtful and intellectual.

Gilligan was proud of her son and his keen intellect. Just recently, he had a group of friends over for tea and chess.

He had many other interests as well, including target practice at the Sportsmen’s Club, where he was a member, and blacksmithing — just recently, he took a class on blacksmithing from the Vashon Wilderness School.

Gilligan and her husband named him after Palmerston Island, a coral atoll in the Cook Islands, in part because they were both sailors at the time of his birth and envisioned their son someday taking to the water.

“We were hoping someday he’d go to Palmerston Island. He was proud of that name,” she said.

Many, meanwhile, are searching for the words to honor Palmer, writing on a Facebook page set up for him — called Dear Palmer — and recalling his short but full life on Vashon. A video on the Facebook page includes a stream of photos of Palmer, from his days as a baby to those as an active youth; it’s set to the song “Why” by Rascal Flatts, a heart-rending piece about suicide.

“You may not have realized it, but we all loved you,” one student wrote.

“If I had known what you were feeling, I promise I would have been there,” another student wrote. “I think we all would have.”


Palmer Burk's funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. on Tuesday at Bethel Church. His friends and their parents are invited to attend. The graveside service will be private.

There will be a reception at the Sportsman's Club starting at about 1:30 after the service.  Everyone is invited to come and share remembrances. Wrestling parents are supplying cookies for the reception. A light luncheon is being catered. People may bring salads or cookies if they wish, but it is not expected.

Also on Tuesday, at 8 p.m., Vashon Youth & Family Services will host a parent forum on grief and transitions. The forum will take place at the Vashon High School library. It is a parent only event.


Suicide hard to foresee in teens and young adults

In adults, suicide usually occurs only after a long and deep depression, said Jeffrey Zheutlin, the clinical director at Vashon Youth & Family Services. But with teens — known for being far more impulsive — simply a bout of sadness can lead to a suicide attempt, he said.

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control also show that boys are far more likely to take their lives than girls, although girls attempt suicide more frequently. The reason, according to the CDC, is partly because boys more frequently use firearms, which carry an 80 to 90 percent chance of fatality.

Zheutlin, who heads VYFS’s counseling program, said he believes no one could have foreseen Palmer Burk’s decision to take his life. Though a few friends noted a moodiness of late, Palmer had all the outward signs of a boy who was doing well, he said.

“There was no warning. I don’t think you’d be able to tell,” he said.

Research on the teen brain shows that the part that provides “executive functioning” — that guards against impulsive behavior — isn’t fully developed until a person is in his or her 20s, he said.

But such information, he said he realized, “isn’t reassuring to parents.” So what should concerned parents do?

“Pay attention to your children. Check in with them regularly,” he said.

He also noted the number of qualified therapists on Vashon, many of whom showed up at Vashon High School last week to support teens who were struggling with the news.

“We have a great community in that way,” he said.

Those who feel their child or another student is having difficulty after Palmer’s death and may benefit from additional support should call the high school at 463-9171, ext. 116, the middle school at 463-9168, ext. 142, or 463-2882, ext. 400, for elementary school students.

Other numbers that may prove helpful are: Crisis Line at 461-3222; Teen Link at 461-4922; Vashon Youth & Family Services at 463-5511 and Suicide Prevention at 1-800-273-8255.


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