On the last full day of his life, Roee Grutman sat at his family’s long dining room table with his biology book open before him. A February snowstorm had canceled school, and he could see one of his younger sisters in the backyard in her pink parka. He took a picture and posted it on Instagram.
“Sister playing by herself in the snow,” he wrote, adding, “#badbrother.”
Roee, a junior at Newton South High School, was studying for five tests in the next two days, all in advanced placement and honors classes. He left his books only when his mother, Galit, urged him to relax on his day off. She took a video of him playing in the snow with two of his younger sisters. Then Roee, 17, returned to his work.
“There was like a big, giant cloud over his head that he had to study,” said Galit, sitting in the family’s living room last week.
Early the next morning, on Feb. 6, Roee killed himself at home. He became the third high school student in Newton to commit suicide this academic year, following two girls in October. Roee left no note. His biology book remained for weeks on the family’s dining room table, where he left it, near an English paper he was revising. The topic was love.
Less than a month later, Roee’s family and friends are still agonizing over what they did not see. Roee did not appear depressed or desperate or in pain. He had many friends; 700 people attended his funeral. He loved sports and math, his older brother, Tal, and his three younger sisters.
His family, who moved here 14 years ago from Israel, believes the stress of an overwhelming course load and an American obsession with elite universities contributed to his death, though they recognize there could have been additional — still unknown — factors.
In the aftermath of the suicides, other parents in town have also begun to question the culture of a high-achieving school community that routinely sends numerous graduates to elite colleges.
But psychiatrists, counselors, and school officials agree: The impetus to suicide is usually far more complex than anxiety about school work and is almost always linked to depression and other mental health problems.
Researchers have not found that school stress directly causes students to take their own lives, said Susan Swick, chief of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Newton-Wellesley Hospital.
However, she said, a stressful event, such as failing an important test or a relationship breakup, could trigger a suicide attempt in an adolescent with other risk factors, such as depression.
Until last fall, Newton high schools had not seen a suicide in many years. Then, on Oct. 5, Newton North senior Karen Douglas, 18, was found in the woods in Natick after taking her own life. Less than two weeks later, Newton South sophomore Katie Stack, 15, also died by suicide. The two girls did not know each other and both had struggled in the past, Douglas with bulimia and Stack with depression, according to their mothers.
Both the Newton schools, which have increased counseling for students, and the community are working to avert more suicides. The Board of Aldermen will vote Monday on whether to approve $100,000 for a six-month suicide prevention program, which would include more counseling in the schools and in the city.
Community workers, such as clergy and police, would also get training to recognize warning signs in residents who might be suicidal and to get them help. The program is designed to take a broader approach to mental health and suicide prevention than just helping students face academic pressures.
“I do not view our efforts at this point as undertaking to look at the culture of Newton,” said city Health Commissioner Dori Zaleznik. “I find that an overly simplistic attempt to make something that is very hard to process understandable. I think it’s a mistake.”
But the two high schools in Newton are trying to talk to students about ways to lower their levels of stress — outreach that began before the suicides, said Superintendent David Fleishman. The schools established no-homework weekends. Students with more than two tests scheduled on any day could ask teachers to reschedule.
“In my experience, there is no more academic stress than in comparable districts where I have worked,” said Fleishman, whose past jobs have included the Chappaqua, N.Y., and Wellesley school districts. “Academic stress is multifaceted. It’s societal. It’s from colleges. It’s from families. It’s from schools. It’s from peers.”
Gonzalo Bacigalupe, a Newton father and UMass Boston professor in the Department of Counseling and School Psychology, touched off a debate two weeks ago when he wrote an opinion piece for WBUR’s CommonHealth blog suggesting that Newton’s high-achieving school culture can be toxic for students.
In an interview, Bacigalupe, president of the American Family Therapy Academy, said he sees a risk of more suicides if the schools do not start talking more about stress.
As a father, he said, he has seen moments “where we need to remind our kids that maybe you don’t need to do a certain amount of APs or honors. It’s very hard. I have a sense that it’s maybe more stressful to be a high school student than an undergraduate.”
Roee Grutman’s family moved to Newton from Israel when he was 3 and his older brother, Tal, was 5. The family grew to include three girls, now 11, 9, and 7 months. Roee had wanted to become a doctor since he was little and talked about studying cardiac medicine or Alzheimer’s, a disease that runs in his family. He had set his sights on getting into Johns Hopkins University, one of the nation’s most selective.
But his friends also recall Roee’s compassion and the way he made time to listen to their problems. He could be quiet but also very funny. He dressed up in a Superman costume freshman year when he wanted to be elected as a class officer — and got the job.
His brother, Tal, believes Roee and his peers started worrying about college plans too soon, years before they needed to apply. Tal graduated last year from Newton South and, disillusioned with the narrow American path of higher education, joined the Israeli Army. He is home for a month to mourn Roee.
“My brother was really nervous about getting scholarships and getting accepted into schools,” he said. “He had kind of figured out that no matter what, until you finish your college education, and then, possibly, even into the workforce, you’re always doing something that you don’t entirely want and you’re always stressed out about it. And that’s depressing.”
David Berman, one of Roee’s closest friends, knew that he was driven to be the best at everything he did — academics, sports, even friendship. Roee scored a perfect 800 on the math portion of his SATs. He skipped 10th-grade math after he taught himself a year’s worth of material the previous summer. He did not often show the stress he felt, and he did not like to burden people by revealing thoughts that might be considered worrisome.
“I had no idea how bad it was,” said Berman, 16. “He seemed totally fine and happy.”
Newton South is a competitive high school that sometimes leaves students feeling like they are on a treadmill of increasingly more arduous work, he said. “It’s hard to feel accomplished with all the hard work you have put in when it keeps moving on to the next level and you have to keep working harder and harder to be what people would describe as successful,” he said.
Roee was not the only student at South who packed his schedule with the most difficult courses. But he often felt dissatisfied with the feeling of never-ending study, and doing well did not seem like enough of a reward, Berman said.
“It’s always counting down to the time where you can sort of relax,” he said. “I guess that sort of gave him an empty feeling.”
Roee is buried at nearby Or Emet cemetery. His father, Mordechai, visits his grave early every day. His mother and siblings go later, talking to him, bringing him flowers.
As a mother, Galit cannot stop thinking about how she might have saved her boy. “I wish I had known then what I know now,” she said. “So maybe, just maybe, I would be able to do something about it. I really didn’t know that it was not OK to take five AP and honors classes. I blame myself for that, for not being on top on things.”
Roee knew Stack, the second Newton teen to kill herself. She lived in the same neighborhood and also attended South.
The day after she died, he called his mother from the school nurse’s office at 8:45. Could she pick him up? he asked. They ate breakfast together and talked. Roee kept puzzling over Katie’s death. “He just couldn’t figure out why she did it,” his mother said. “Why would she do such a thing?”
Roee’s family is planning a memorial service for him later this month, when they will celebrate his life. Galit said she wants to keep the tone of the service cheerful. Still, she said, she has an important message for Roee’s friends.
“They need to know that what Roee did was not OK,” she said. “It’s very, very important for me to give them the message that they have to find someone to talk to and I wish that Roee did. I don’t want them to think that he’s a hero.”
“But he is” — she started to cry — “for us,” she said. Not because of the way he died, but because of the way he lived, trying to help other people. He had planned to start a group of school math tutors, volunteers called Newton Little Helpers, who would donate their fees to the homeless or others in need.
Galit found the business card Roee had created for the group and has talked with his much-loved calculus teacher, Tom Lee, about starting the project. She has also been talking to Roee’s friends about the things she would like to do in his name.
“He wanted to change the world,” she said. “So I’m taking it as a mission. That’s Roee’s last wish.”