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COMMENTARY: Schools must address suicide

“Sherri hung herself last night.” As a teacher, I was prepared to hear any number of things on a cold winter morning. This was not one of them.

Sherri was a sixth grader. She had attended my summer English enrichment class and seemed a typical, happy child. She giggled uncontrollably during my read-aloud of “Almost Starring Skinnybones” and talked constantly about friends, family and school.

The news of Sherri’s suicide shook our entire school community. I tried to hold it together for my students and cried uncontrollably when I was alone. What had I missed? What had we all missed?

Until that day, I had not considered suicide a problem among young people. I wasn’t aware of how common it was, and I certainly had no idea what signs to look for or what steps to take if I suspected a child was in crisis. Yet as a teacher, I needed to know.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teenagers in this country. Between 2008 and 2017, more than 17,000 young people died by suicide. LGBTQ, African American, Native American and special education students are especially vulnerable.

I believe that schools should have suicide awareness and prevention plans in place that train personnel in identifying risk factors and warning signs of suicidal behavior. Plans should include identification of resources, both in and outside of school, to assist students in crisis.

Last December, the FCC approved a plan to designate a three-digit number similar to 911 as a suicide prevention hotline. The proposed number, 988, would link callers to a network of established mental health specialists around the country.

This resource is needed but does not go nearly far enough in addressing the issue.

Students spend hours in school daily, and all school personnel — including teachers, administrators and support staff — must be prepared to deal with students in crisis. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention recommends that states establish legislation requiring a minimum of two hours of suicide awareness training each year for school employees. Currently, only 13 states require this training.

All states should follow the mandated, two-hour training guidelines. The foundation has also enacted model legislation that is intended to serve as a starting point for state legislatures. These resources are free and available for school use.

Nevada has consistently had one of the 10 highest suicide rates in the country. Skyrocketing rates of suicide among young people resulted in the passage of two bills during Nevada’s 2019 legislative session. One of them, Assembly Bill 114, requires school districts to evaluate suicide training programs currently in place and to provide reports to the Nevada State Department of Education. The other, Senate Bill 204, requires all schools to adopt a suicide prevention policy and to train all children in grades seven and on the signs of suicide. That same year, the Nevada Legislature also set aside $75 million for school safety, which includes providing additional mental health supports for students and their families.

Many schools in Nevada and across the nation are beginning to recognize the importance of implementing trauma-informed practices to deal with student mental health issues. As a teacher, my job is to educate. However, students bring their entire selves into our spaces every day. Their mental health and emotional states manifest themselves in ways that I may not be able to identify without proper training and resources. I need to know much more, and I need training in order to help students such as Sherri.

It is crucial that schools not only provide such training but partner with organizations that may serve as immediate resources for assisting students in crisis. Organizations such as Communities in Schools, which offer health and mental health supports, provide a blueprint of how such partnerships can work in supporting both teachers and students. Holistic training that includes how to spot potential warning signs and the availability of immediate, local support systems for students are critical first steps in creating school communities where student mental health and well-being is truly a priority. Our students and communities deserve nothing less.

— Tracy Edwards teaches fifth grade English language arts at Odyssey Charter Schools in Las Vegas. She is a 2019-20 Teach Plus Nevada policy fellow.

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