Open communication

What do you say to a young child who might be at risk for suicide?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Talking about suicide with young children can feel scary or inappropriate. But Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said broaching the subject can save lives.

“We have this fear that if we ask about it we’ll plant a seed,” Glover said. “There is no research to support that, and in fact, there is research that when we ask kids about their suicidal thoughts, they see a decrease in those thoughts.”

The death by suicide of a 9-year-old Denver boy in the first week of school has drawn awareness to the sad fact that young children try to and sometimes manage to take their own lives. Glover said it’s still very rare for children younger than 10 to attempt suicide, but it seems to be increasing.

In young children, restricting access to lethal means, like firearms, sharp objects, and prescription medication, greatly reduces the chances of attempted or actual suicide, Glover said. Lock boxes for pills, scissors, and knives can be bought at drugstores.

It’s also important for parents and schools to know that children who bully – and not just those who are bullied – have an increased risk of harming themselves.

“We’re quick to ask our kids, ‘Are you being bullied?’ But it’s just as important to ask our kids, ‘Are you bullying anyone?’” Glover said. The common denominators are hopelessness, a sense of social isolation, difficulty making or keeping friends, and troubles at school or at home.

Glover said it’s important for parents to keep lines of communication open and help kids deal with big emotions. Adults should ask kids not just how their day was, but also what hard things happened at school and how the child is feeling about them and coping. And parents should not be afraid of asking children if they’re thinking about harming themselves.

Here’s how to ask, according to Glover: Have you ever wished you could go to sleep and not wake up? If the answer is yes, follow up with, Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? If the answer is yes again, ask your child if they’ve thought about how and when they would do this, Glover said.

If a child has a specific plan, it’s best to go to the emergency department, Glover said. If the child doesn’t have a plan, arrange for a mental health evaluation as soon as possible and keep checking in with your child in the meantime to make sure they haven’t started to form a plan.

“If you ask your kids those questions, you’re going to be much more likely to be able to keep them safe,” Glover said.


RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. You can chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

Mental Health First Aid Colorado: mhfaco.org. Classes teach participants the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges or crisis, what to do in an emergency, and where to turn for help.

Mental Health Colorado: https://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/ This statewide advocacy organization offers a free mental health toolkit for schools.

Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado: www.suicidepreventioncolorado.org. The coalition works to reduce suicide through education and advocacy.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. The foundation pays for research, raises awareness, and provides support to those affected by suicide.

Colorado Department of Education: Bullying Prevention: cde.state.co.us/mtss/bullying. Find current research, best practices, and grant programs.

under the microscope

Hundreds of volunteers and vendors still under review in Chicago schools’ background checks, most teachers cleared

PHOTO: Getty Images

Late Friday afternoon, Chicago schools released the climbing tally of employees who have cleared background checks — although hundreds of coaches, custodians, and volunteers remain under review.

The overwhelming majority of staffers — 99.14 percent — have passed, according to the district. But at least 13 people will lose their jobs because of the findings..

The district is still reviewing 107 coaches, out of 3,638, and 240 custodians out of 2,208 who work for private vendors.

When it comes to volunteers, the district checked the backgrounds of more than 8,059, and 403 have not been cleared. Volunteers who are in schools fewer than 10 hours a week do not have to undergo background checks, but principals have discretion to implement a stricter policy, the district said earlier this week.  

Out of the district’s 20,413 teachers, 99 percent have cleared fingerprint-based background checks.

Starting this summer, Chicago Public Schools began doubling down on background rechecks and fingerprinting in the wake of a series of articles from the Chicago Tribune that exposed gaps in how the district handled allegations of student sexual misconduct at the hands of adults. The district announced several new policy changes and precautions before the start of school, including new trainings for staff, hiring for a 20-person Office of Student Protections and Title IX, and a districtwide poster campaign that spells out how to report suspected misconduct.

Earlier this week, the Chicago Sun-Times wrote that some nurses assigned to Chicago schools had been sidelined by background checks. Today’s updated count released by the district shows that only 20 nurse contractors, out of 416, remain in limbo.

The background checks have raised concerns among parents and community leaders who serve on Local School Councils. The district requires council members to undergo fingerprint-based background checks, and some undocumented parents are refusing. A letter of concern addressed to Mayor Rahm Emanuel and district leadership currently has attracted slightly more than 100 signatures.

The latest results provided by the district are below.

 

school support

When students miss school, they fall behind. Here’s how one group is curbing absenteeism.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape's staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

When Crystal Bullard moved to Memphis from the Bahamas last year, she was looking for a new life and a better education for her three young children.

What she found was an overwhelming school system that was hard to navigate, and an environment where her children felt like outsiders.

Her children, ages 4, 7 and 9, were initially bullied at Whitney Achievement Elementary School, the North Memphis school she chose because it was closest to her home. The bullying meant her kids didn’t want to go to school. For Bullard, missing a day or two was a common problem at the beginning of last school year.

“When I came here, I didn’t know nothing. I had nothing,” Bullard said. “I came to this school because it was the first I found. But it was so hard to get the kids up and here every day. We struggled with that for many weeks.”

Bullard is not alone in her daily battle to get the kids to school. Almost a fifth of Memphis students are considered chronically absent, which means they missed at least 18 days during the school year. Research has shown chronic absenteeism is linked to negative outcomes for students, including lower test scores, higher dropout rates, and even a greater risk of entering the criminal justice system.

Absenteeism has such a large impact on learning, districts are under pressure from new national legislation to include chronic absenteeism data in how they evaluate schools.

In Memphis, a local nonprofit is working to improve attendance numbers. Agape Child & Family Services places its employees in schools throughout Memphis to help with attendance, behavior, and academic issues.

Bullard said her life began to change when her family joined the Agape program. The three full-time Agape workers at Whitney walked Bullard through why it was crucial for her kids to come to school every day. They provided her with school supplies and uniforms, and tutored her children. Agape also provided counseling for Bullard and her children through another part of its organization.

“My kids have too many friends now,” Bullard said. “They aren’t afraid, they’re excited to come to school. My kids are 100 percent better now than when we came. We still have issues to work out, but we feel welcome.”

For schools like Whitney Elementary, days of missed instruction can quickly put students behind academically. Whitney was taken over in 2012 by the state’s Achievement School District, which is trying to turn around Tennessee’s worst-performing schools. Every day of instruction matters in their efforts to boost student achievement, Whitney principal LaSandra Young said.

“Our attendance is low at the start of the year because students have transferred or moved,” said Young. The school currently enrolls 263 kids — Agape helps the school track students down.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Crystal Bullard’s children started preschool and elementary school at Whitney last year.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as they don’t have school supplies yet or are struggling with transportation,” Young said. “The extra support they provide is crucial because every day of attendance really does matter.”

Charity Ellis, one of Agape’s staff members at Whitney, said her job can look very different day-to-day, but working closely with students is consistent. Some days Agape pulls students out of class to work intensely on reading or math skills. Or if students are struggling with behavior in class, Agape staff members will pull the students into the hallway to speak with them and calm them down.

Agape staff also try to stay in constant communication with parents, especially if their kids are missing school, Ellis said.

If parents are running late, they might decide to keep their student at home rather than bring them for a half day, Ellis said. “But when we communicate with them how important every hour of learning is, they get that. Sometimes all it takes is one conversation and how deeply we care about their kids.”

Agape worked with 82 kids at Whitney Elementary last year, who were chosen by the school, including Bullard’s three children. About 90 percent of those students are now attending at least 90 percent of the school year, said David Jordan, CEO of Agape.

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout the Frayser, Raleigh, Hickory Hill, and Whitehaven neighborhoods — and they are all now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of their goal for Agape students to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For comparison, 57 percent of all students in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District attend school for more than 90 percent of the year, Jordan said.

Jordan emphasized that keeping kids in school goes beyond daily attendance — the program also helps students with academics and behavior, so they don’t miss school because of suspensions. Agape helps out parents, too.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Whitney Principal LaSandra Young (right) hugs a student who is pulled out of class to work with Agape.

“A lot of our parents are underemployed and dealing with trauma,” Jordan said. “We provide family therapy, but also job coaching and help. We see this as a two-generation approach, the parents and their children are in this together.”

Bullard said the family counseling provided by Agape at Whitney has made a huge difference in her family’s mental health. When they first moved in 2017, Sergio, her oldest child, struggled with his behavior at school and he was sometimes pulled out of class.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Bullard said. “When Sergio first came here, he had a mean spirit in him. A don’t-care attitude. But at our sessions, he opened up and up. He’s still fighting with his sister, but it isn’t the rage it used to be. He’s calmed down a lot.”

Sergio also had a habit of hiding his school work from her, Bullard said. That’s changed, too, and he enjoys showing off what he’s learning to his mom.

“Now he likes to say big words that he knows I don’t know,” Bullard said. “But it’s great. We’ve never had this kind of support before.”

Jordan said that stories like Bullard’s are encouraging but acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done. He said he’s hopeful Agape will be able to add more and more students to the program every year.

“We know that keeping kids in school consistently is one of the things that works,” Jordan said. “We also know that students in under-resourced neighborhoods in our city need more support. The schools need more people who can help. We can provide that.”

Here’s the full list of schools Agape is in, broken down by neighborhood: