Student deaths inspire suicide prevention conversation in Colorado communities
September 22, 2017 | By Jennifer Brown
The day after a second Littleton student in two days took his life, Arapahoe High School principal Natalie Pramenko started to cry halfway through her message on the school intercom.
“You are not alone,” she said through the 2,100-student suburban school’s sound system, her voice breaking. “You are all important. I love each and every one of you.”
Then she repeated the words of the parents of Claire Davis, who died in 2013 after she was shot in the school by a classmate who then killed himself. “Choose love and kindness always.”
After the suicides of two students in two days at the start of the school year, one a junior at Arapahoe and the other an eighth-grader at nearby Powell Middle School, administrators have been grappling with how much to say about suicide — a conversation historically kept in the shadows because of stigma and fear, and among the most terrifying for parents.
Community reaction has ranged from handwritten, supportive notes sent to school leaders, to criticism from frightened parents asking why schools don’t do more to prevent suicide. “Some are still scared to talk about it,” Pramenko said in an interview. But many are calling for a wide-open, community conversation.
And not just in Littleton. In Denver’s northern suburbs, Adams 12 Five Star Schools lost a middle-school girl to suicide this month, prompting the district’s chief academic officer to warn parents about “continued exposure” to videos and photos circulated on social media as news of her death spread rapidly across the district’s middle schools. Both boys who took their lives in Littleton posted on social media just before they killed themselves, one at an elementary school playground.
Two decades ago, it was “almost unheard of” for school districts to delve into emotional and mental health, said Littleton Superintendent Brian Ewert. Now it’s a necessity.
“Mental health is absolutely our responsibility when it interferes with a student’s ability to learn or their ability to feel safe at school,” he said. When a student dies, whether by suicide or a drunken-driving accident, for example, the community immediately responds by asking, “What is the school doing to solve the problem?” Ewert said.
In Thornton, Adams 12 schools two years ago created the position of suicide-prevention and crisis-recovery specialist. The district four years ago began requiring its entire staff to take a half hour of training on signs of suicide. And new this year, four elementary schools are piloting a prevention program that doesn’t specifically mention suicide, but teaches kids about empathy and how to help friends who are having a hard time, said the district’s suicide-prevention specialist, Sarah Hunter.
Littleton spent $800,000 to hire mental health counselors after Davis’ death and two years ago began a program that allows the district’s foundation to pay for mental health counseling for students who don’t have insurance coverage, “walking the line between public education and private mental health,” said Nate Thompson, Littleton’s director of social, emotional and behavior services. The district’s teachers are trained to recognize symptoms of depression and report them to counselors, and a “cyberparenting workshop” that began five years ago draws about 300 people each year who want to learn more about keeping kids safe online, including regarding depression and suicide.
The district counted 206 “suicide interventions” last year, meaning the number of times school staff learned of a student who was contemplating suicide and linked them to mental health help and informed parents. That compares with 36 interventions in 2009.
Suicide, self-harm and depression were the most frequently reported concerns in the district on Safe2Tell, an app and phone number for anonymous tips. The tip line received 127 tips regarding suicide and depression last year. In comparison, there were 114 tips regarding alcohol and drug use, and 50 tips involving bullying, the third-highest category.
Community outcry to talk about suicide, along with the district’s desire to show parents what programs they already have, has spurred two upcoming community meetings. Also, Arapahoe High and Powell Middle School were put on a fast track to start a new student-led suicide-prevention effort that probably would have remained in the discussion phase for months.
A parent-only suicide-prevention training session, originally planned for February, is happening Monday night at Arapahoe. The guest speaker, from the University of Colorado medical school’s depression center, will explain “three simple steps to help save a life.”
And on Oct. 10, the school district is holding a mental health fair at Mission Hills Church, an event that will include community counselors, clergy and mental health programs, emphasizing that suicide prevention is a community — not just a school — effort. The district is hoping 1,000 people attend.
Arapahoe principal Pramenko first heard about a program called Sources of Strength last year and said she planned to “explore” it this school year. But within days of the suicides of the two boys, Pramenko urged a school counselor to tell staff about the program at an already scheduled staff meeting.
Pramenko told her faculty that she hoped to have the program, which teaches students how to identify signs of depression among their peers on social media, running at full capacity within three years. It would require 20 teachers and 210 students to complete training.
Within 48 hours of the presentation to staff, more than 40 teachers had signed up. More than 300 students have asked for training or been nominated by staff, who were instructed to look not just for high-achievers but those who struggle academically and those who appear isolated. Students are taught how to respond if they see a social media post that reveals depression or thoughts of suicide, and how to link that person to a “trusted adult.” The idea behind it is that not all kids have an adult they trust, but they probably have a friend who does.
A week after the suicides, Pramenko also went to student council with another idea: a voluntary pledge to give up social media for a week and return to it “only with kindness.” The response was lukewarm, in part because it was 6:30 a.m. and also because homecoming was around the corner, she said.
A social media blackout would not succeed if it was organized by the principal, Pramenko acknowledged, leaving it up to student leaders.
Seniors Sophie Engel and Molly Galloway, who is class president, like the idea of a social media blackout, but wanted a schoolwide assembly to introduce it, including a speech by the parent of the junior who killed himself. A week after the suicides, they wanted to hold a raw, intense rally that would demand attention.
Instead, the girls said, they were upset that some teachers, probably out of caution, returned to normal almost immediately, as in “Please pass in your homework” and “We have a test on Friday.” They were grateful for teachers who strayed from reading the “half-sheet,” what the students consider a canned response, to the “unexpected tragedy” that included the commonly used phrase of “Warriors take care of each other.”
“The change that needs to occur consists of bringing meaning to that motto,” said Galloway, who ended up with 40 students at her house — including some she didn’t know — on the night of the second suicide. “We need to get to the kids who don’t have friends to talk to.”
“We just need to hit it on the nose,” Engel said. “Don’t wiggle around it. We need to go for it instead of saying no to anything scary.”
Both girls said the pressure in high school to participate in multiple activities and sports and excel at academics is intense. “Students don’t have time to relax, to focus on mental health,” said Galloway, who besides student council plays lacrosse and field hockey. She punched a few numbers into her smartphone and noted that for people who live until their 80s, high school makes up 4.7 percent of their lives, a fact she wishes had impacted the boys who died this year, as well as other Araphoe students who died by suicide in recent years.
Parents, too, shared the sentiment that mental health of students is especially important in a middle-class suburb where sports and college admittance are often the focus.
“I really don’t care at this point if someone is a gifted and talented kid,” Heidi Schlossberg, whose son was at Arapahoe during the 2013 shooting, told school board members this month, asking them to take football money and put it toward kids who are struggling. “It’s more important that we’re known as a school system that doesn’t have suicides and shootings rather than children who made it through and did well.”
She and others want to keep the conversation at the forefront, a difficult task that goes against the typical pattern of initial community concern that fades — until the next suicide or traumatic event.
“People tend to move on,” said Ken Wiig, who lost his 17-year-old daughter to suicide and for 10 years has worked with Second Wind Fund, which pays for mental health counseling for teenagers and is available in about 90 percent of school districts, including Littleton. “In society, we tend to react to events and as time goes on, we tend to forget.”
Second Wind matches kids with mental health therapists across the state who have agreed to see at-risk teenagers within days and for a reduced fee. Students are referred to the nonprofit, which will pay for up to 12 sessions, by school counselors, psychologists and other staff.
“I wish we could bring down the stigma of people asking for help,” Wiig said. “It’s got to be OK to ask.”