The casting call’s location wasn’t glamorous but it would do the job.
Sporting an oversized Bronco’s jersey, Shannon Hawley passed out consent forms to a group of a dozen students at a McDonald’s in Greeley. The ad he’d posted on Facebook about a week before had paid off.
“Weld County, Colorado,” the post read. “I am looking for teenage boys and girls to be part of a very powerful social media commercial addressing suicide prevention.”
It went on to list the casting call’s time, date and location.
On the day of, students gathered around a long table in the noisy dining room to hear Hawley’s pitch. He raised his voice to be heard over beeps from the kitchen and the clatter of ice from the soda machine.
“(The commercial) is going to promote the suicide prevention hotline number and it’s going to promote the crisis text line number,” he said. “Which are some really important numbers for people to know.”
No one involved would get paid. The video would only be released on social media, he said. The entire script took him about five minutes to write, he added with a laugh.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere the group’s motivation was serious: to give a voice to a growing issue in their community — student suicides.
In the spring of 2018 three students in the Greeley Evans School District 6 took their own lives in the span of a week. After reading about it in the local paper, Hawley decided to do something by starting a suicide awareness nonprofit.
Hawley is a suicide attempt survivor himself. So are his wife and daughter, he said.
Since starting his organization Hope4_2morrow, the Facebook group has amassed more than 700 followers. He’s hosted fundraisers, suicide prevention trainings and is planning his first 5k and community event, which will take place in September.
For his first PSA, Hawley decided to reach teens where they may be struggling — online.
“When I was younger, we didn’t really take (suicide) serious,” Hawley said. “But we need to start taking it serious. There are so many resources out there that aren’t known about.”
The larger issue
Hawley said he hopes his video educates students on the harmful effects of cyberbullying, and how it’s a persistent problem for students growing up in the digital age.
The 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey asked 56,000 middle and high school students if they’d been affected by cyberbullying. About 20 percent of middle school students said they had. The rate for high school students is slightly lower — about 15 percent.
Adam Collins, bullying prevention grant coordinator with the Colorado Department of Education, said the numbers haven’t changed since the state started doing the survey in 2011.
“95 percent of teenagers have access to the internet,” he said. “So really you would expect that increase just because there's more availability there. But we're not really too sure why we're seeing that stable rate.”
He said the link between cyberbullying and suicide is more complicated than just drawing a direct line between bullying on social media and getting to the point where you’re contemplating taking your own life.
“A lot of times there’s other factors that we have to take into account,” he said. “It can be a contributing factor though.”
Collins added it was a top priority for his office to do more work around bullying prevention. The state currently divvies up around $2 million in marijuana tax revenue to schools for that purpose.
In September, the Department of Education is opening applications for more schools to get grant funding around cyberbullying prevention. As of 2018, 70 schools in 14 districts are receiving grant money directly from the state.
A couple days later, Hawley walked onto the set of his video at Milliken Middle School. A couple dozen students were there ready to act — far more than the crowd that showed up at the McDonald’s casting call.
The commercial’s storyline is simple: A boy breaks up with his girlfriend. At school, classmates tease her to the point where she’s contemplating suicide.
That’s when a friend steps in and gives her the suicide hotline number.
Behind the camera, Hawley entered director mode. He instructed a group of girls to record the main girl with their phones like they’re going to post it.
“Yeah, keep the phone out,” Hawley said. “Look mean.”
The commercial has no dialogue, just actions. The finished product will be underscored by music produced by Hawley’s friend Joe Hunt, a hip-hop artist based in Denver.
“Social media bullying has a lot to do with what’s going on in schools,” he said to the girls. “I like the phone idea because cyberbullying is a real thing.”
Haylee Luka-Jensen, a freshman at Northridge High School in Greeley, was one of the commercial’s extras. She said putting the video online was a good idea.
“I had a friend commit suicide last year,” she said. “This is really important to me because I don’t want anyone to go through the loss that I did.”
She’s also had some dark times herself. About a year ago she said her mom found some text messages on her phone talking about suicide with a friend.
After that, her family was able to get her the help she needed.
“I’m going great now,” she said. “Definitely better.”
Overall, the atmosphere on set was relaxed. But before they break for the afternoon, Hawley made a passionate plea directly to the student actors.
“You know, it's hard being in school,” he said. “Especially when you got everybody against you. It happens. And you have the ability to make somebody feel good about themselves with the simple gesture of putting your hand on their shoulder and reminding them that they're loved.”
He paused for a moment.
“But let's get this show on the road!”
The group cheered before heading outside to film the final scene.
Hawley said he plans to upload his video to the internet in early September after he finishes editing.
He said he acknowledges social media is a hotbed for cyberbulling. But if sharing his video there means it reaches struggling teens in his community, he added, he’ll be happy.
“(Saving) one life,” he said. “That’s all that matters.”
A sneak peek of the end of the video
Stephanie Daniel contributed reporting.