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.

#WontBeErased

Denver school board pledges to make sure LGBTQ students are ‘seen, accepted, and celebrated’

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Ellie Ozbayrak, 4, sports rainbow wings at the annual PrideFest celebration at Civic Center Park June 18, 2016.

In response to reports that the Trump administration may seek to narrowly define gender as a condition determined by genitalia at birth, the Denver school board Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution in support of transgender students and staff members.

“The board, with its community members and partners, find this federal action to be cruel and harmful to our students and employees,” the resolution said. Denver Public Schools “will not allow our students, staff, and families to feel that they are being erased.”

The Trump administration has not yet made a final decision. But the threat of reversing actions taken under the Obama administration to recognize transgender Americans has prompted protests across the country, including a recent walkout at Denver’s North High School.

Several Denver students thanked the school board Thursday for the resolution, which says the board “wholeheartedly embraces DPS’s LGBTQ+ students, employees, and community members for the diversity they bring to our schools and workplaces, and strives to ensure that they are seen, accepted, and celebrated for who they truly are.”

“It is amazing to hear each and every single one of your ‘ayes,’” said a student named Skyler.

The resolution lists several ways the district supports transgender students and staff, including not requiring them “to undertake any expensive formal legal process to change their names in DPS student or personnel records” and honoring their pronoun preferences.

Read the entire resolution below.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting.