struggling

Young lives lost: Suicide prevention efforts expand slowly and cautiously in elementary schools

PHOTO: alvarez | Getty Images

A 9-year-old Denver boy felt desperate enough to take his own life on the fourth day of school. Last year, an Aurora fifth-grader also died by suicide. And in 2015, it was two Fort Collins sixth-graders.

These shockingly young victims raise particular alarm in a state where suicide rates are among the highest in the nation.

Such youth suicides are also forcing educators, parents, and lawmakers to grapple with an uncomfortable reality. Years of anti-bullying efforts haven’t done enough to change school culture, and suicide prevention efforts barely touch the elementary level even as suicide attempts by very young children seem to be increasing.

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, voiced frustration about her unsuccessful efforts to pass legislation that would allow children as young as 12 to get counseling at school without first obtaining their parents’ consent. The current age limit is 15.

In 2019, she plans to push an ambitious proposal to assign social workers not just to every school but to every grade in elementary school. Initially, she said, legislation would test this idea on a small scale.

The issue of youth suicide is deeply personal for Michaelson Jenet. Her son, now a junior in high school, attempted suicide when he was 9, the same age as Jamel Myles, the Denver fourth-grader who died last week.

“I’m devastated by the loss of this young man, and I would hope that everyone in Colorado feels the loss,” Michaelson Jenet said. “No child should experience what he experienced, and together, I hope we can work together so that it never happens again.”

Myles’ mother said her son had recently come out as gay and was bullied at school.

Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselors Association, said while LGBTQ students often experience bullying and bullying may have played a role in Myles’ suicide, it’s hard to draw a direct line between the two.

“We never know for sure what’s happening with a student who has taken their own life. We have clues. We can look backwards. We can second guess ourselves or others. But we just don’t know for sure,” he said.

Regardless, it’s important for schools to establish a safe and inclusive culture from the first day of school, he said.

He noted that there are curriculums that cover LGBTQ issues for elementary-age students in an age-appropriate way, including one from the national advocacy organization, GLSEN. Such lessons aren’t about sex, but about respecting people with all kinds of differences.

While many Denver middle and high schools have Gay Straight Alliances or clubs for students who identify as LGBTQ or allies, there are no district-wide elementary-level programs, said Ellen Kelty, director of the Denver Public Schools department that oversees social workers and psychologists. School social workers and psychologists are trained in how to support gay and transgender students, and are available to consult with teachers, she said

Sparks acknowledged that teachers and school staff don’t always witness bullying because it takes place out of earshot, but said it’s important for them to talk to kids about reporting it.

“It’s not tattling. It’s making sure that adults know so they can address the situation,” he said.

Sarah Davidon, research director of the statewide advocacy group Mental Health Colorado, said for adults and adolescents who die by suicide there’s a high correlation with depression.

“With younger children that’s not the case. It tends to be more of an impulsive action,” she said. “It’s more related to not having the people around them to talk to or give them the support they need.”

It can be hard to attribute a child’s suicide to one thing, she said. In the case of Myles, “I think it can be attributed to a 9-year-old boy who didn’t feel like he had another option,” she said.

Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said suicide attempts remain very rare for children under 10, but seem to be increasing. There’s no one obvious answer as to what’s driving the increase. It seems to be a combination of social media, which can turn bullying into a 24-7 torment, increased stress from kids being asked to accomplish more at younger ages, and adults not understanding how that stress can build up into a feeling that there’s no escape.

“We don’t think of our younger kiddos as having mental health problems,” Glover said. “We really need to be more proactive in asking our kids how they’re coping with these stressors.”

Glover said teaching kids skills for coping with big emotions is just as important as teaching reading and math, and those lessons should start in kindergarten.

“It’s a big responsibility to put on schools, but schools are in a good position to do something because they spend so much time with kids,” she said.

Davidon said schools also need help from the community to support students’ mental health, including strong partnerships with local mental health centers and information for educators about Colorado Crisis Services, which offers immediate crisis support via phone lines and text lines.

Jamel Myles’ case has echoes of last year’s death by suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl, Ashawnty Davis, a fifth-grader at Sunrise Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District. Her family said she took her life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. Lawmakers cited the case as they ordered the Colorado Department of Education to develop a model anti-bullying policy for districts to use. The state already requires that schools have a policy and makes some grants available to promote those efforts.

However, efforts to expand school-based suicide prevention efforts proved more challenging. Near the end of the session, a modest grant program that would train school staff – but not fellow students – to recognize the warning signs of suicide finally passed.

Two years ago, the legislature passed a bill allowing a state grant program that pays for mental health staff at secondary schools to expand to elementary schools. In part, it was a recognition of the growing incidence of mental health issues in younger students.

Last year, about three-dozen school districts, as well as several charter schools, received grants through the program. But demand far exceeded supply, with the state education department receiving $17.4 million worth of requests from 66 applicants and awarding $9.2 million to 42 applicants. Denver received money for 22 secondary schools.

Denver, like some other Colorado districts, has gradually extended suicide prevention and mental health promotion efforts into elementary schools in recent years, but the programming and services are often more limited than those for older children.

Last year, Denver Public Schools piloted a new suicide prevention curriculum for fifth-graders called Riding the Waves that teaches students to identify and cope with stress. The district tried it in five elementary schools, and the plan is to expand to more this year, Kelty said.

That expansion is a recognition that these issues are affecting younger and younger students.

“When I started years ago, it was high school issue,” Kelty said.

Most Denver elementary schools also teach a curriculum geared toward encouraging kindness and teaching students how to be a good friend, Kelty said. The district doesn’t mandate schools use a specific set of lessons, and different schools teach different curricula, she said.

The district also has a bullying prevention grant through the Colorado Department of Education that pays for a trainer who works with a small number of schools, Kelty said.

In addition, the district recently started giving some of its students a “universal screening” that checks on their mental health as well as their physical health. The screenings happened in about 70 of the district’s 200 schools last year, Kelty said. While it’s often obvious from their behavior which students are outwardly struggling, the screening is meant to identify those who may be internalizing feelings of depression or the effects of trauma, Kelty said.

Sparks, of the counselors association, said one lesson for schools from Myles’ death is to “always be vigilant about the health of your students and the culture of your school, that culture of inclusiveness for all students.”


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.

Are you worried that your child might want to harm themselves? Here’s how to start that conversation.

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.