Prevention push

After another Colorado child commits suicide, the search for solutions intensifies at schools and the statehouse

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the tragic circumstances of a Colorado fifth-grader’s suicide draws widespread attention, two state lawmakers said Friday they plan to introduce legislation next year aimed at helping schools try to prevent such cases.

“I want to have a conversation that 10-year-olds die by suicide,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told Chalkbeat. “And we need to be doing more to help them.”

The Commerce City Democrat’s comments follow the death of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, who hung herself in her closet, according to multiple reports. Ashawnty’s parents say she was “devastated” after a video of her confronting a bully after school was posted to a social media app, Musical.ly.

Anthony Davis and Latoshia Harris, Ashawnty’s mother and father, are raising questions about whether Sunrise Elementary in Aurora, part of the Cherry Creek School District, did enough to prevent the incidents before their daughter’s death.

Officials from the Cherry Creek School District say they took the appropriate steps. And suicide experts caution about attributing a suicide to a single event. Usually there are multiple factors, and clear answers are often elusive.

Still, Ashawnty’s death, along with a growing rate of suicides among Coloradans between the ages of 10 and 17, have parents, educators, activists and lawmakers wrestling with complex questions about bullying and suicide prevention in a digital age.

Suicide prevention resources

  • Colorado Crisis Services, 1-844-493-8255 or text “TALK” to 38255
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255
  • Risk factors and warning signs from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“We’re in a situation where students can no longer escape the bullying that happens at school, because of technology,” said Daniel Ramos, the executive director of One Colorado, which as the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization has taken a strong stance against bullying. “That’s something we need to better understand.”

It’s unclear how widespread bullying is in Colorado schools. Under Colorado law, schools aren’t required to exclusively report instances of bullying. They are, however, required to report events “detrimental to the welfare or safety of other students or of school personnel.” But that includes a wide range of issues, state officials said.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial questionnaire that a sample of Colorado students fill out on a volunteer basis, found in 2016 that by the eighth grade, half of all students reported being victims of bullying. And about 20 percent of high school students reported being a victim of bullying within the previous year.

Some Colorado schools — including some in the Cherry Creek School District — are attempting to make their schools safer places. More than 70 school are participating in a three-year, $2 million grant program to curb bullying.

“There’s no magic solution to reduce bullying,” said Adam Collins, the state Department of Education’s bullying prevention and education grant coordinator. However, the program is attempting to build teams of teachers, parents and students at participating schools to change the conversation around bullying.

“A lot of times, people feel like they want to help but they don’t know what to say or do,” Collins said, adding that some schools in the program are helping teachers come up with one or two different sentences they can use to defuse situations around bullying.

While some lawmakers are considering additional steps to prevent bullying at school, Michaelson Jenet and state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, want to equip educators and mental health providers with more tools to curb the state’s high child suicide rate.

Since the beginning of the year, there have been reported cases of children committing suicide in Colorado Springs, Littleton, Thornton and Grand Junction. The deaths have cut across racial and socioeconomic lines.

The rate of Colorado children taking their own lives has more than doubled in the last decade, data show. In 2016, nearly 10 out of every 100,000 Colorado kids took their own lives — 57 in total. Colorado’s suicide rate among children is one of the nation’s highest.

Todd’s bill would provide grants to schools for training teachers and staff in teaching life skills and preventing suicide.

“Our students need to be surrounded by highly qualified teachers, staff, and peers that have a greater level of focus on positive life skills and know when to seek higher levels of intervention to assist students indicating a need for help,” Todd said in a statement.

Michaelson Jenet’s bill would allow kids as young as 12 to meet with a licensed therapist to talk about their feelings without parental consent. Under current law, parents must be notified if a child under 15 seeks help.

The Commerce City lawmaker’s bill also would create a campaign to advertise the state’s suicide prevention text hotline and create a program to train adults in “mental health first aid.”

Michaelson Jenet, whose own son attempted suicide when he was 9, ran a similar bill seeking to lower the age of consent this year. It died in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“This is the No. 1 question for our society in Colorado,” she said. “We have to answer the question —- How do we stop our kids from dying?”

Unmet needs

A social worker in every grade? Perhaps for 10 Colorado elementary schools

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Fifth-graders practice mindfulness at Munroe Elementary School in Denver.

Educators, parents, and social workers told of students struggling with depression, younger and younger children attempting suicide, and youths ending up in prison. A bill approved Thursday by a Colorado House committee would pay for a three-year trial to provide social and emotional help for elementary students in the hopes of addressing some of these challenges.

If approved by the full legislature and signed into law, the measure would create a three-year pilot program at 10 high-needs schools. It is estimated to cost about $5 million a year. House Bill 1017 would place social workers, counselors or psychologists in every elementary grade at the test schools starting next year.

In an impassioned presentation, bill sponsor state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, said schools need more social workers “to stop our children from dying by suicide, from ending up incarcerated, from being failed by our system.”

Suicide is a leading cause of death among youth ages 10 to 24 in Colorado, and advocates of the bill said schools are often ill-equipped to deal with children suffering from trauma, bullying and behavioral challenges.

The bill was scaled back from an original version that would have cost $16 million a year. Michaelson Jenet said the nearly $5 million annual cost would be funded in part by $2.5 million from the state’s marijuana cash fund, with the rest from private foundations.

The National Association of Social Workers recommends one social worker for every 250 students, and one for every 50 students at high-needs schools.

Colorado schools don’t come close to those numbers.

About one-third of the state’s 178 school districts employed social workers during the 2016-17 school year, the most recent for which data was available from the Colorado Department of Education. Those districts represented about 89 percent of that year’s 905,000 pre-K through 12th grade students.

The nearly 590 social workers employed worked out to less than one full-time employee per 1,000 students.

Englewood’s Sheridan School District had three social workers for 1,511 students, while Yuma County had 1½ social workers for 807 students.

The two largest districts, Denver and Jefferson County, employed more than one-third of school social workers that year, with more than one social worker for every 1,000 students. Denver voters approved a 2016 tax to help pay for more social workers.

But many districts have no social workers. And most school social workers are stretched thin.

Jessie Caggiano is a social worker who serves more than 3,000 students at four high schools in Weld County.

“I’m not able to meet with students effectively on a one-on-one basis, because I’m trying to implement other services schoolwide,” she said. “I’m only at each of my schools one day a week, so I’m not able to meet their needs by any means.”

Darlene Sampson, president of the Colorado chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers, recalled working at a Denver school when a student was killed in the cafeteria.

“Many kids are carrying their trauma in their backpacks into the school,” Sampson said.

And Cam Short-Camilli, representing the Colorado School Social Work Association, said students are facing increased emotional problems at most schools. The increase in youth suicide and suicide attempts is especially difficult, she said. One Denver incident last fall attracted national attention.

“Every school district, every student is impacted, that’s rural, urban, suburban schools,” Short-Camilli said. “In the past five years, I’ve been at elementary schools, and it’s been extremely shocking. Kids at those schools, there’s an immense ripple effect.”

But state Rep. James Wilson, a Salida Republican, questioned whether the pilot program would be possible to replicate because of the high number of professionals needed.

“I’m sitting here feeling like the Grinch,” Wilson said. “I cannot bring myself to put together an unrealistic pilot. Will it really work in the real world?”

State Rep. Janet Buckner, an Aurora Democrat, also expressed concerns, but voted for the bill.

“I’m concerned how we’re going to fund it,” she sad. “The suicide rate is off the chart and our kids need so much help. I don’t think we can wait. I have a lot of phone calls and emails about this bill, people who really need the help.”

HB-1017 next goes to the Appropriations Committee before being considered by the full House, then the Senate. It is one of several measures aimed at offering help for students and their families beyond academics at public schools.

Story time

This Memphis teacher’s favorite student didn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. She taught him a powerful lesson.

PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner teaches at East High School in Memphis.

When one of Daniel Warner’s favorite students refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he could feel the tension in himself rising.

It was August 2017, the first week of classes, and Warner said he knew how important setting a tone was during the first few days of school.

“Didn’t my teacher prep program teach me that I have to set high expectations in that first week or the year is lost?” asked Warner, a U.S. history teacher at East High School in Memphis. “If I don’t set those, we’re done for.”

But before Warner reacted, he said he took a few moments to reflect on what could be going through her head.

Chalkbeat TN Storytelling Event
PHOTO: Xzavier Bonds
Daniel Warner tells his story to a crowded room.

It was the Monday after a violent white supremacists rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Stories of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick were again dominating the news, as he remained ostracized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality.

Instead of punishing her, Warner said, he refocused on what she might be thinking through as a black American high schooler.

“The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers,” Warner said.

Warner was one of seven educators and students who participated in a February story storytelling night hosted by Chalkbeat Tennessee, Spillit, and The Knowledge Tree. The stories told centered around school discipline practices, a topic Chalkbeat recently dove into in this special report.

Video Credit: Gillian Wenhold, The Social Exchange. The Social Exchange is a pay-as-you can PR & content creation firm for nonprofits and responsible, women/minority owned businesses.

Here’s an edited transcript of Warner’s story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

It’s a week into school in early August. And kids are just trickling into my senior homeroom mostly asleep, sitting quietly in their desk as 18-year-olds do at 7:15 in the morning…And then morning announcements come on. “Please stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.”

So I stand up, and I say, “Alright y’all, go ahead and stand up with me.” I see these seniors throwing their bodies out of their seats, trying to stand up while they are still asleep. And almost everyone stands up but one girl doesn’t…  

So, my eyes meet this girls eyes as she stays in her seat during the pledge. And I can feel the tension in me of my authority being challenged in the room. And I wonder if everyone else is looking at me, my other students. So I give her a teacher look meant to communicate, “Are you going to stand up?” And she looks at me from across the room and shakes her head and mouths, “I can’t.”

So this student was one of my best students the year before in honors U.S. History. She engaged deeply with the material and personally. She asked questions of herself, of her country, of democracy, what this whole thing is about. She processed the double consciousness she feels of being both black and American. And she did so while being kind, thoughtful hardworking. The student you think of that makes you want to cry, you love that kid so much. I wonder what’s going on, what is she thinking about…

This is a Monday and the weekend before had been the white supremacists march in Charlottesville… When she told me, that she couldn’t stand, I went and sat in the desk next to her…I asked, “What’s keeping you from standing up?”

She started by saying, “I hate,” and she stopped herself. She took a breath, calmed herself down and said, “I just can’t.” And so we just sat there for a second. I could see as I got closer to her that she was flooded with emotion and feeling something deeply. And so we let the announcements end and I tell her, “When I say the pledge I say it more as a hope and a prayer…that there would be liberty and justice for all.” She said, “Yeah, I was thinking about that,” like a good U.S. History student, but she said “things don’t’ seem to be headed that way right now…

The lesson she taught me that day was that some of the most harmful instances of school discipline happen when we are too focused on ourselves as teachers. She showed me that I was a little too focused on how I was being perceived by other students in the classroom. And that I wasn’t focused enough on her and what she might be processing. As teachers, we have all of this opportunity to escalate conflict, I’ve done it plenty of times. But we also have an opportunity to be gracious to students who are working out who they are in public…

This girl wasn’t being disengaged by saying no to me, she was being especially engaged with who she is… When we talk about restorative justice, the first step we have to take is for us as educators and adults, and it’s doing your own emotional work. And we have to ask ourselves questions about our identities. You can only lead someone somewhere if you’ve gone there yourself…

What is it about us when it sets us off when a kid says no to us? Why are we that insecure? … When we pay attention to ourselves, our emotional status, the hurt we’ve felt, the pain we’ve lived through, that is when we can begin paying attention to how formative schools are. They are spaces where folks are working out their identities in public, and that’s when you feel the most self conscious and vulnerable and in need of grace offered by someone else.

So, I hope as we talk about this, we think of ways where we can make school a space for people to be figuring out who they are and not just punished into compliance. In high poverty schools, you talk about compliance like it’s the ultimate behavior. I hope we can make schools where students can learn what it is to seek justice, even when and especially when, things just don’t seem to be headed that way right now.