Photo credit to Jeff Yalden

On Thursday, January 12, 2023, Leonardtown High School held an assembly hosting a motivational speaker, Jeff Yalden. The speaker, however, failed to deliver motivation, but instead, caused students to be triggered by topics of discussion, including descriptive suicide, and self harm methods.

According to a Facebook post by Serenity Place, LLC, they were contacted by current clients and new ones asking to be seen soon, as they had been triggered by the motivational speakers content after the assembly. The Southern Maryland Chronicle reached out to Serenity Place, LLC to get more information. Serenity Place, LLC is a local mental health treatment center, providing mental health help to students and the community for free when able, and even offer a sliding scale for those without insurance.

According to Esther Vanderwal, spokesperson for Serenity Place, when she reached out to St. Mary’s County Deputy Superintendent Maureen Montgomery regarding the speaker, Montgomery “essentially kept sidestepping and saying that they have always had speakers that some like and some don’t.” Vanderwal told Montgomery “that if it was harmful to even one, than it’s one to many”. Montgomery allegedly continued to be dismissive and state that they had only received three calls complaining, despite acknowledging she had seen Serenity Places Facebook post, which had garnered 141 comments, all of which, seemed to echo the same issues with the speaker. You can look at the post through this link .

The Southern Maryland Chronicle contacted several parents who had commented on various posts regarding this situation to get permission to interview their students who attended. Due to the nature of the content and the sensitivity needed, those students’ names will not be released, nor will their parents.

According to all students we interviewed, he “trauma dumped” on the students. He told them how he left his wife after her hysterectomy and to not forgive him because he hasn’t forgiven himself for it. He also talked in great detail about a friend of his who committed suicide while he was in the military, down to the type of gun that was used. One student said that he told the students that, “he deemed us a ‘crisis school’ in need of his help.”

Another student said the most disturbing thing was that he said “self-harm is good, because at least the person is feeling”. It is alleged that he even went into detail all the ways you could self harm and that he “enjoys when people speak to him about their self harm, hearing how they hurt themselves.” He also implied to students that if they are depressed or anxious that it is their fault. It is reported that even after hearing these things, not one staff member stopped him from speaking on this matter.

When asked what they expected from a motivational speaker, many students said they expected to hear statistics about teen suicide, depression, and anxiety. They also expected to hear about ways they can cope during a tragedy, or to be given resources if they feel they need help with their mental health. Those same students said they didn’t expect to hear that self harm is good and ways to self harm, or hear about a suicide in great detail. These students said they were made to feel uncomfortable with the way these topics were presented.

According to one student, Yalden, would walk up to students in the audience and start asking really personal questions, including asking one male student what he would say if he(the student) was with his daughter(Yaldens daughter) and was meeting him. He patted him on the back, saying he would let him date his daughter. He also went up to a young lady and asked them if they loved themselves, if what they saw in the mirror reflected what they felt, and if they thought they were beautiful both inside and outside. The student didn’t want to answer, but he was persistent until she would answer his questions. It has also been reported that he was seen kissing female students on the cheek multiple times.

On January 18, Yalden conducted an interview on the Leonardtown High School news. It has not yet been determined if this was previously recorded prior to the assembly or if he was invited back to the school for this interview on January 18. You can see that clip here.

The Southern Maryland Chronicle also reached out to the Board of Education, but had not heard back as of the filing of this story. Please continue to follow The Southern Maryland Chronicle for updates to this story.

Suzanne Copeland

I am a former breaking news reporter and journalist from, where I served 5 years covering all of Southern Maryland's breaking news. I did all of this while raising a family consisting of...

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