Eastern Tech students and faculty grieve loss of Baltimore County officer who killed himself at school

Outside Officer Joseph Comegna’s door at Eastern Technical High School on Tuesday were dozens of notes by students thanking him for his work and expressing their appreciation and love.

“Comegna, forever in our hearts,” one sign posted to the yellow tile wall read. A string with red paper hearts crisscrossed his office doorway.

Behind his door shortly after noon Monday, Comegna took his service revolver and shot himself, Baltimore County police said. The sound of the gunshot brought a staff member to investigate, but no students are believed to have seen what happened.

“The saddest thing about this is that so many people, everyone really, at Eastern Tech cared for him,” said Suzanne Castle, a retired English teacher who substitutes at Eastern. “So many are grieving his loss and sorry at the thought that he didn't realize he could have walked into any area of the building and someone would have helped him.”

In school Tuesday, some teachers tried to push forward with class. Others sat and talked with students about their grief, crying openly. One teacher told students he had taught Comegna when he was a student, said Hailie Brown, a sophomore at the school.

She made a card for Comegna's family and placed it outside the door to his office.

“I was thinking of how much I was going to miss him,” she said. “I figured his family must be suffering too, so I wrote it to them to let them know how much he meant to us.”

Brown, who lost a family member to suicide, said she wrestled with her own emotions the day after Comegna's death.

“This sounds selfish, but I’m angry he did it in school,” she said. “The officer I knew would never have done something like this in school. So I’m assuming it was something so awful that he felt he had no other choice. But I'm more sad than angry.”

A day after the shooting, staff, students and law enforcement were still reeling from Comegna’s death.

“Everyone is sort of walking around bewildered,” said Officer Jennifer Peach, a spokesperson for Baltimore County police.

Comegna had been working as a school resource officer for about 12 years, the last four at Eastern Tech, a magnet high school on the east side of Baltimore County that is known for its high-achieving students.

“I know the first thing people want to say is ‘How could we have prevented this,’ but a lot of times it's the person themselves who could have sought help,"” Peach said.

Peach said she was not aware whether Comegna had sought help for any mental health troubles he might have had. She said no note has been found.

School resource officers are patrol officers that have been assigned to work from inside the school. Their duties include addressing crimes reported inside the school, providing quick response during physical altercations or active-shooter scenarios, and to establish a rapport with students to build trust, Peach said.

While individuals must undergo mental health screenings to become a police officer, they are not necessarily required to undergo a second screening to become a school resource officer, Peach said.

A national study that looked at suicide among first responders found that more die by suicide than in the line of duty. In 2017, 140 police officers across the country committed suicide while 129 were killed in the line of duty, according to research by the Ruderman Family Foundation of Boston.

The job exacts a toll, not just on those who fight California wildfires or go into mass shooting scenes, but also on those who are confronted daily with the stress of policing a community, said Miriam Heyman, a senior program officer at Ruderman. At the same time, there is a stigma against seeking help, and a concern that they might lose their jobs if they acknowledge they need help.

“They too often don’t receive the mental health treatment that would be life-saving,” she said.

In Baltimore County, prospective school resource officers undergo an interview process that requires a review of their personnel file and any internal investigations.

Any officer with a file that is anything "less than exemplary" would be ineligible to be a school resource officer, Peach said.

Often, there is a correlation between the places officers commit suicide and the reasons they do it, said Robert Douglas, executive director of the National Police Suicide Foundation.

Officers who have relationship problems will most often do it at home, while those with job issues will shoot themselves in their cars, he said. “There are reasons why he decided to kill himself at the school.”

Douglas said he does not know the particulars in Comegna’s case.

“We haven’t been able to establish any workplace problems that may have contributed to his actions,” Peach said. “There were no red flags, not even family members have been able to say this was a concern.”

Peach said Comegna seemed to have a great relationship with people at the school.

Hailie Brown’s mother, Shannon Taylor, said Comegna took his job seriously. She watched him help her daughter cross the street after classes were dismissed each day. She also remembers seeing the officer chase down cars that had made improper U-turns in front of the school.

“He is genuinely one of the nicest people I had ever met,” Taylor said Tuesday. “He goes above and beyond.”

Castle said Comegna was beloved at the school.

“Officer Comegna was a gentleman. He made it a point to talk to all students and staff members on a constant basis, from casual friendly greetings in the hall or cafeteria to coming into classes giving presentations about various health and social issues,” she said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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