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?”

Movers & shakers

Former education leaders spearhead new Memphis group to zero in on poverty

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Klondike-Smokey City is the first Memphis neighborhood targeted by Whole Child Strategies to coordinate the fight against poverty.

In a “big small town” like Memphis, neighborhoods are a source of pride and strength for residents in one of the poorest cities in America.

Natalie McKinney

Now, a new Memphis nonprofit organization is seeking to address poverty by coordinating the work of neighborhood schools, businesses, churches, and community groups.

Natalie McKinney is executive director of Whole Child Strategies, created last fall to help neighborhood and community leaders chart their own paths for decreasing poverty, which also would increase student achievement.

“There’s a lot of people ‘collaborating’ but not a lot of coordination toward a shared goal,” said McKinney, a former policy director for Shelby County Schools.

McKinney doesn’t want to “reinvent the wheel” on community development. However, she does want to provide logistical resources for analyzing data, facilitating meetings, and coordinating public advocacy for impoverished Memphis neighborhoods through existing or emerging neighborhood councils.

“Poverty looks different in different areas,” she said, citing varying levels of parent education, transportation, jobs and wages, and access to mental health services. “When we get down and figure out what is really going on and really dealing with the root cause for that particular community, that’s the work that the neighborhood council is doing.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Luther Mercer

Her team includes Luther Mercer, former Memphis advocacy director for the Tennessee Charter School Center, and Rychetta Watkins, who recently led the Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Mid-South, along with Courtney Thomas, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Tenice Hardaway.

Whole Child Strategies is supported by an anonymous donor and also plans to raise more funds, according to McKinney.

The first neighborhood to receive a grant from the nonprofit is Klondike-Smokey City, which includes a mix of schools run by both Shelby County Schools and Tennessee’s Achievement School District. The group is drilling down to find out why students in those schools are missing school days, which will include a look at student suspensions.

At the community level, Whole Child Strategies has canvassed Agape Child & Family Services, Communities in Schools, City Year, Family Safety Center, Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp., Mid-South Peace & Justice Center, and Seeding Success for ideas to increase transportation, reduce crime, and provide more mental health services.

For example, Family Safety Center, which serves domestic abuse survivors, now has a presence in schools in the Klondike-Smokey City community. McKinney said that’s the kind of coordination she hopes Whole Child Strategies can foster.

One need that already is apparent is for a community-wide calendar so that meetings do not overlap and organizations can strategize together, said Quincey Morris, executive director of the Klondike Smokey City Community Development Corp.

“I think like any new thing, you have to crawl first,” Morris said. “And I think the more that the community is informed about the whole child strategy, the more that we involve parents and community residents, I think it will grow.”

It takes a village

What does it mean to be a community school? This Colorado bill would define it – and promote it

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A teacher leads a class called community living at Jefferson Junior-Senior High School in Jeffco Public Schools.

A Colorado lawmaker wants to encourage struggling schools to adopt the community school model, which involves schools providing a range of services to address challenges students and their families face outside the classroom.

Community schools are an old idea enjoying a resurgence in education circles with the support of teachers unions and other advocates. These schools often include an extended school day with after-school enrichment, culturally relevant curriculum, significant outreach to parents, and an emphasis on community partnerships.

In Colorado, the Jefferson County school district’s Jefferson Junior-Senior High School is moving toward a community school model with job services and English classes for parents. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has made this approach the centerpiece of school turnaround efforts in that city.

State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would, for the first time, create a definition of community schools in state law and make it explicit that innovation schools can be community schools. The Senate Education Committee held a hearing on the bill Thursday and didn’t kill it. Instead, state Sen. Owen Hill, the Colorado Springs Republican who chairs the committee, asked to postpone a vote so he could understand the idea better.

“My concern is these chronically underperforming schools who are wavering between hitting the clock and not for years and years,” Zenzinger said. “What sorts of things could we be doing to better support those schools? In Colorado, we tend to do triage. I’m trying to take a more holistic approach and think about preventative care.”

Colorado’s “accountability clock” requires state intervention when schools have one of the two lowest ratings for five years in a row. Schools that earn a higher rating for even one year restart the clock, even if they fall back the next year.

Becoming an innovation school is one pathway for schools facing state intervention, and schools that have struggled to improve sometimes seek innovation status on their own before they run out of time.

Innovation schools have more autonomy and flexibility than traditional district-run schools – though not as much as charters – and they can use that flexibility to extend the school day or the school year, offer services that other schools don’t, and make their own personnel decisions. To become an innovation school, leaders need to develop a plan and get it approved by their local school board and the State Board of Education.

Nothing in existing law prevents community schools. There are traditional, charter, and innovation schools using this model, and many schools with innovation status include some wraparound services.

For example, the plan for Billie Martinez Elementary School in the Greeley-Evans district north of Denver envisions laundry services and an on-site health clinic.

District spokeswoman Theresa Myers said officials with the state Department of Education were extremely supportive of including wraparound services in the innovation plan, which also includes a new learning model and extensive training and coaching for teachers. But the only one that the school has been able to implement is preschool. The rest are on a “wish list.”

“The only barrier we face is resources,” Myers said.

Under Zenzinger’s bill, community schools are those that do annual assets and needs assessments with extensive parent, student, and teacher involvement, develop a strategic plan with problem-solving teams, and have a community school coordinator as a senior staff person implementing that plan. The bill does not include any additional money for community schools – in part to make it more palatable to fiscal hawks in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Supporters of community schools see an opportunity to get more money through the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which includes non-academic factors like attendance, school climate, and expulsions in its school ratings and which encourages schools to work with parents and community partners. In a 2016 report, the Center for Community Schools said ESSA creates “an opportune moment to embrace community schools as a policy framework.” And a report released in December by the Learning Policy Institute argues that “well-implemented community schools” meet the criteria for evidence-based intervention under ESSA.

Zenzinger said that creating a definition of community schools in state law will help schools apply for and get additional federal money under ESSA.

As Chalkbeat reported this week, a series of studies of community schools and associated wraparound services found a mix of positive and inconclusive results – and it wasn’t clear what made some programs more effective at improving learning. However, there doesn’t seem to be a downside to offering services.

The State Board of Education has not taken a position on the bill, and no organizations have registered lobbyists in opposition. But there are skeptics.

Luke Ragland of Ready Colorado, a conservative group that advocates for education reform, said he’s “agnostic” about types of schools and supports the existence of a wide variety of educational approaches from which parents can choose. But he worries that the focus of community schools might be misplaced.

“They try to address a lot of things that are outside the control of the school,” he said. “I wonder if that’s a wise way forward, to improve school by improving everything but school.”

Ragland also worries about the state directing schools to choose this path.

“I would argue that under the innovation statute, the ability to start this type of school already exists,” he said. “We should be thinking about ways to provide more flexibility and autonomy without prescribing how schools do that.”

Zenzinger said her intent with the bill is to raise the profile and highlight the benefits of the community school model. She stressed that she’s not trying to force the community school model on anyone – doing it well requires buy-in from school leaders, teachers, and parents – but she does want schools that serve lots of students living in poverty or lots of students learning English to seriously consider it.

“There is not a roadmap for implementing innovation well,” she said. “There are a lot of options, and not a lot of guidance. There’s nothing saying, ‘This is what would work best for you.’ If they’re going to seek innovation status, we want to give them tools to be successful.”

This post has been updated to reflect the result of the Senate Education Committee hearing.