Suicide prevention in our schools
This is the second of a four-part series we are writing on suicide prevention for National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Last week: Suicide is preventable, here’s how to help!
Douglas County youth spend approximately 1,400 hours in Douglas County School District (DCSD) schools annually. After twelve years, that’s nearly 17,000 hours. Chances are, during that time there will be some behavioral issues that come up at some point. There will be drama with friends and classmates. There will be tears. There will be disagreements with teachers. There also will likely be anxiety about a test, a competition, a game, or a concert.
These things are natural. But what happens when things escalate and a student begins to exhibit troubling signs more consistently, falls into long-term depression, or engages in unhealthy activities? How can DCSD personnel intervene while also providing a healthy route for these students to redefine their lives so that they do not fall back into unhealthy behaviors, engage in substance use, or desire to end their own lives?
Here’s another challenge: How about those students who do not exhibit troubling signs at all? While four out of five students who try to end their lives exhibit warning signs or opportunities for others to engage, how do we catch that fifth student?
While many tactics are used in DCSD schools, two specific approaches are showing great effectiveness.
A fairly new partnership between DCSD’s Prevention & School Culture team and Douglas County Teen Court coordinators is providing a new path for youth offenders, and Sources of Strength— now present in most DCSD high schools and some middle schools— is establishing a healthy culture and climate with the goal of catching youth long before they fall into unhealthy behaviors or consider taking their own lives.
Teen Court Partnership Enables Youth to Rewrite Their Own Stories
Teen Court is a community-based diversion program that offers a voluntary alternative to the juvenile justice system. Trained youth volunteers from the community engage the offending youth in the Teen Court process to deliver appropriate and meaningful “sentences.”
As part of DCSD’s partnership, Prevention & School Culture Coordinator, Staci McCormack, and other Prevention personnel established an Empowerment Seminar. It’s meant to be a transformative experience for the youth involved. Now, in addition to other parts of their sentence the youth must engage in, these students are now also “sentenced” to attend Empowerment Seminar.
McCormack explains, “Last week we held one of our all day Saturday empowerment seminars for 20 Teen Court youth respondents. The seminar offers youth a chance to begin rewriting their personal life story. Together, we explore how even well known and beloved leaders fall sometimes, and yet, with the right support, love and resources, they pick themselves up.”
McCormack says they are able to measure the impact of Seminar because she and other staff follow those kids in DCSD’s Infinite Campus system, observing their attendance and their behavior.
“We’ve seen both their attendance and behavior issues lessen. Most of our kids have not reoffended. What happens in Seminar is powerful stuff,” she says.
“When we look at youth who have found themselves tangled up with the law, we still see incredible potential and believe with self-restoration a newfound positive life trajectory can begin.” She continues, “we tell them we can write them reference letters, that they’ve graduated Empowerment Seminar, and we provide them with a certificate that doesn’t even mention Teen Court. A big part of it is letting them know, ‘we’re here, we’ve got your backs if you need anything.”
It’s about building relationships, and McCormack says this has helped prevent more than one suicide.
“Last night I received an email from a student who was at a Seminar in June. She said, ‘I’m reaching out because I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom for me or anyone that I can maybe talk to, because I have been thinking really heavily of suicide lately. I believe I am a burden on my family, and my family doesn’t have anymore money to help me through this, so I don’t want to tell my mom anymore. I’m really in a super dark hole.’ I called dispatch, they did a welfare check on her immediately and took her to the hospital,” McCormack recounted. “It’s really because of our partnership with Teen Court that made her reaching out to us possible.”
Sources of Strength moves beyond a singular focus on risk factors by utilizing an upstream approach for youth suicide prevention. In this model, youth identify trusted adults as sources of support so that when times get hard they have strengths to rely on. More than a program, it’s really a culture embedded into the fabric of a school, and it empowers students to lead the way.
“Sources of Strength has very credible evidence on this theory of how social contagion changes unhealthy cultural norms into healthy ones. It’s peer led, and we know when peers are leading the effort, instantly you have bigger impact. It’s something that’s sustainable. It’s not a program, it’s not an event, it’s not something ‘we do here.’ It’s who we are,” McCormack says.
Ponderosa High School is now in its fifth year with Sources of Strength.
“At first we relied more on district trainings and trainings by the founders of Sources of Strength, but over time we were able to make it more our own. It has our own voice now. It’s been amazing to see how it’s evolved over time. It’s now Ponderosa’s Sources of Strength,” says Ponderosa Spanish teacher Benny Izquierdo, who is helping co-lead Sources this year along with Counselor, Erin Williams.
Ponderosa Assistant Principal, Natalie Munoz-Garcia explains that in order for Sources to be successful, it first requires buy-in from the youth peer leaders.
“We’re trying to spread to students that we all have these sources of strength and teach how to utilize these instead of focusing on unhealthy behaviors,” she says. “So if we are looking at family support, we showed students how you have family at home but you also have the Ponderosa family. We did this great family link activity where everybody wrote down their name on a link of the chain, and they wrote people in Ponderosa, and then their family, and we made a great big visual display of those links connecting together in our main hallway, making a big emphasis on that family support.”
Williams adds, “I like the structure of the [Sources of Strength] wheel because where one piece of the wheel is a strength for one student, another piece of the wheel is a strength for another student. It’s about helping the students recognize the strengths they have, even though it might look different from what their friends have for their strength. It’s that resiliency piece— recognizing and identifying what recharges them for the next day.”
Williams’ goal is for peer leaders to meet every couple of weeks to keep the message strong for all students in the building and to encourage their leadership.
“Last year we saw for the first time other student groups reach out to us to ask to partner with them for their activities,” Williams says. “For example, student council held a Student Empowerment Week last year, and they devoted one of those days to Sources of Strength. As time has gone on, it’s being recognized more and more in the school.”
Ponderosa has seen success with the peer-led model.
“Our first year we had a student peer leader connect with a student in need during the school day. They were then referred to the counseling office and an assessment was conducted. The student was at risk for suicide and they were given the help they needed,” Munoz-Garcia recounted. “To me that was an immediate sign of success of Sources of Strength.”
Another one of the primary things Ponderosa’s team likes about Sources of Strength is its focus on positivity.
“This program is all-encompassing. It can serve as an anti-bullying platform as well as suicide prevention tool, but it’s done as a way of promoting positivity and strength,” says Munoz-Garcia.
It’s this approach and model they see working as a great prevention tool to catch youth before they reach a low point.
“One of the metaphors used in the national training is you have your waterfall, and we are throwing them a raft before they get to that waterfall as opposed to throwing them a raft after they hit it,” Williams says.
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For more information on more Prevention programs in DCSD schools, please visit the DCSD Prevention & School Culture Website