How one rural California district is tackling student suicide prevention

11 Sep
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Kids together

Editor’s Note: September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. CSBA has invited a guest blogger working with real school districts to share their experience addressing students’ social-emotional needs.

By Laurel Bear, Ph.D.

A young district with 30,000 students, Twin Rivers Unified School District is celebrating its 10 year anniversary. Over the course of those 10 years, Twin Rivers has recognized — along with school districts across the country — that students are coming through their halls with challenges that demand far more than classroom instruction alone can provide.

Students are bringing with them the significant trauma that one out of four kindergarteners is exposed to, often in circumstances so complicated that most adults would be left unable to respond. Children are facing homelessness, foster care and are active cases of children protective services.

Despite these traumas, students make every effort to come to school, ready to learn. They are also depending on the district’s reliable adults to teach them the skills necessary to survive their lives.  In many instances, a student’s need for social-emotional competency is a matter of life and death. For these children, their most reliable adults are every member of their school community staff.

Twin Rivers USD embraced the lifeline value of social-emotional learning, thoughtfully and strategically integrating mental health into their system of support and education. The district addresses survival and coping skills and teaches good mental health strategies. As part of this program, Twin Rivers teaches suicide prevention and education, warning signs, and the necessary steps to intervention and post-vention to students, staff, parents and community partners.

To carry out this comprehensive mental health approach, the district committed to a system of training all school psychologists; all mental health liaisons, including those working with homeless and foster youth students; all school site counselors; all school staff and administration, and all of their after-school program staff.

The district intentionally reached out to each provider group to ensure that no staff is without training and that all students are fully supported. All staff are individually trained on their roles and responsibilities, with a focus on certificated staff who provide a “trainer-of-trainer” concept.

The highly organized format for certificated teachers, administration and after-school staff ensures that everyone has been trained as gatekeepers who recognize and know what to do when they identify an at-risk student.  These teams work closely with district police officers in all areas of mental health and safety. Dedicated to making a difference in the lives and safety of their students, Twin Rivers USD concentrates on messaging, presenting at numerous parent, community and county meetings. The formula for results in student mental health is commitment, strong leadership and communication.

Because suicide is the second leading cause of death among children, Twin Rivers’ Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Dr. Lori Grace and her team are educating all school community stakeholders on the risk factors that youth face. Through the district’s efforts, Dr. Grace’s team has trained staff to understand the challenges that contribute to the behaviors of suicide in order for staff to be equipped to respond to the social-emotional needs of their students with the necessary interventions.

In partnership with the school community, Twin River school’s response is hands-on, with all “kid detectors” in operation to better engage with — and intervene on behalf — of their students. Through these joint efforts, and as part of the district’s Assembly Bill 2246 program, mental health is addressed throughout the school day, and as such, is represented in the district’s school climate.

“We are far more in tune with the social and emotional needs of our children and how those needs impact their education,” said Grace. “We know we must address the whole child in order to have our students be successful.”

How can school boards prioritize student mental health?

  • Work with school community partners, county departments of mental health and school leadership to begin conversations.
  • Address mental health and risk factors in Local Control and Accountability Plans.
  • Do not be afraid to begin the difficult and necessary conversations. Talking about suicide does not increase the act of suicide. Rather, it is the opposite: such conversations point the way toward vital help and identify warning sign behavior.
  • Every California school district must have their prevention and post-vention plan written not only into their LCAP, but also into their school safety plan, a requirement of California Education Code.

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Laurel Bear, Ph.D, is a pioneer in K-12 student mental health and safety programming with 35 years in the field. She is a media expert resource and a keynote speaker for conferences around the country. Through 4 Successful Kids, Bear provides school districts with consultation, training and support for integrating comprehensive mental health services, education and partnership-building throughout their school sites. Bear has worked with Twin Rivers USD for two years to develop their comprehensive mental health program.

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