What Parents, Educators Are Doing To Stop Student Suicides In Colorado

Aug 22, 2018

As students across the state head into another school year, safety and security remain top priorities for educators. Another challenge is preventing teen suicides.

According to the 2017 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey 17 percent of high school students said they’d seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

It’s a complicated subject to handle, especially for smaller districts with fewer staff.

That’s why there’s a statewide push to get more counselors and trainings in schools. But finding the best way to tackle the issue depends on who you ask.

We talked to educators, parents and school safety professionals about what’s being done to prevent student suicides in Colorado. Here’s what we found:

John Gates, chief of safety and security for District 6, stands in the empty hallway of Northridge High School in Greeley.
Credit Matt Bloom/KUNC

John Gates, chief of safety and security, Greeley Evans School District 6

District 6 is still reeling from the deaths of three students this past spring, said John Gates, the chief of safety and security at Greeley Evans School District 6.

“We had three suicides in one week back in March,” he said. “It's probably one of the worst things a school environment can go through.”

For this school year, District 6 has a new, beefed-up contract with North Range Behavioral Health. Gates said it supplies one counselor to every one of its elementary, middle and high school.

“The counselors are the first line of defense for kids,” he said. “Not necessarily who are suicidal but are having various issues. Whether it’s suicidal ideologies, problems at home or problems with a boyfriend.”

He’s also planning to bring in public speakers this fall to talk to students about suicide and bullying.

Once classes get going, staff will also put up posters for the Colorado-based Safe2Tell program, he said. The program gives students a way to anonymously report safety concerns, including signs of suicide in their peers.

The district also has eight staff psychologists and a crisis response team in place.

“I’m little biased, but if I thought we were really lacking on mental health needs, I'm in a position I could go to our superintendent,” he said. “The fact is I feel like we have a good system in place.”

Gates added that District 6 is always looking to improve its prevention strategies.

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Chris Harms, director, School Safety Resource Center

In January, Chris Harms convened a group of 18 district and community mental health professionals from across the state for a day-long conference in Denver. There, the group reviewed their respective district’s suicide protocols and made a list of “best practices.”

The group found that many districts had a crisis management policy but not a suicide-specific policy, said Harms, director of the School Safety Resource Center. The group recommended districts put such policies in place to better support students.  

It also recommended districts have a policy around memorials for deaths. That way, staff are ready in times of crisis.

“I think if we’re going to stem this tide, schools are really in a wonderful place to help support students,” she said.

This spring, Harms also helped get increased funding for suicide prevention trainings through the state legislature. Senate Bill 272 earmarked $400,000 for schools to help develop better policies and protocols.

This fall, districts can start applying for $10,000 grants to send their staff to trainings to learn the warning signs of suicide and how to initiate difficult, albeit life-saving conversations, she said.

Her office is also putting together an online course to be released this fall. There, staff can learn the same skills for free.

“(Staff) do spend so much time with students and students sometimes are more open with a trusted adult at school than their own parents because they can be afraid of what their parents’ reaction may be,” she said.

Sarah Brummett, director of the state's office of suicide prevention, in the office's Denver headquarters.
Credit Matt Bloom/KUNC

Sarah Brummett, director, Office of Suicide Prevention

Sarah Brummett is working alongside the School Safety Resource Center to oversee the new statewide grant for suicide prevention training.

She is the director of the Office of Suicide Prevention, part of the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment. Brummett said they’re adding several new positions, including a recently-hired state youth suicide prevention coordinator.

Brummett echoes Harms’ recommendation that school districts need to take time to put comprehensive suicide policies and procedures in place.

"Communities tend to look to the schools (for suicide prevention) and there's a lot of pressure and blame placed unfairly on schools," she said. "But schools do play an important role." 

Her office also provides free toolkits online for schools looking to amp up their prevention and response efforts.

Shay Black sits on her son's memorial bench in Berthoud.
Credit Matt Bloom/KUNC

Shay Black, mother, Weld County

Shay Black’s son, AJ, was a student at Berthoud High School when he took his own life in 2016.

Everything etched onto his memorial bench’s red metal frame is a testament to him.

There’s the Spartan wrestling insignia, because he was on the wrestling team. There’s also a “Class of 2017” marker and two holes in the shape of pineapples on each armrest.

“Pineapples were AJ’s favorite thing. He loved pineapples,” she said. “Socks, shirts, underwear. The kid was funny.

After his death, Black started a nonprofit organization to help other families processing a loved one’s suicide. The AJ Black Foundation is dedicated to suicide awareness and prevention. Part of that mission involves getting students educated about the topic.

Black said schools need to buck the stigma around suicide and address it head-on.

She said the biggest mistake educators can make is hesitating to discuss the topic of suicide. Black feels that the Thompson School District could have done things better.

“Nobody from the school district ever reached out to us (after AJ died). We never got a card. We never got a visit. We never got a phone call,” she said.

Charlie Carter is executive director of student support services at Thompson. While she couldn’t discuss the specifics of how AJ’s death was handled she did say they have a broad range of trainings and protocols in place when it comes to responding to suicides.   

“One of the things that’s been helpful is hearing this perspective of parents and listening to their feedback and their concerns and being able to take that into consideration as we’re working to improve our processes.”

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