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Out of Tragedies, Lessons & Hope

The school district’s response to a suicide shows lessons learned from past incidents, but it takes more than a school to prevent future suicides
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On the night of Jan. 17, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Robert Leri learned that a sophomore at Truckee High School had committed suicide. Immediately, the school district went into action. Truckee High School principal Greg Dettinger went over to the house where a group of the young man’s friends had gathered, and Leri initiated the district’s crisis plan, which included convening a response team made up of school counselors, psychologists, chaplains, and principals to be ready the next morning at Truckee High and Alder Creek Middle School, where the sibling of the deceased attends school. Snacks and lunch were provided free that day so students didn’t have to worry about lines. Big sheets of butcher paper were hung in the career-counseling center for students to visually express what they were feeling, and the following day, Saturday, the high school stayed open so that students had a place to convene.

“Our immediate concern was to be there to support the students socially and emotionally,” Leri said. “It can’t be business as usual.”

Business as usual grinds to a halt when a community loses a young person, especially in a small community like Truckee where everyone knows each other or are separated by a few degrees. The town was hit even harder when 10 days later, a 23-year-old Truckee High grad killed himself, marking the fourth suicide by young men in the area in the past three years. But tragedy can be the breeding ground for good, and it was out of the previous two suicides that the ideas and programs grew that were in place this year to support students through their grief, help identify teens at risk for suicide, and prevent future deaths. Community, county, and school leaders hope that more good ideas will result from the community meetings that followed the January suicides, and most of all, the understanding that any suicide prevention measures must be done on a community-wide level.

Prepared But Still Impacted

One reason the school district responded so rapidly to the suicide was worry about contagion, or copycat suicides. Although all the experts interviewed for this article didn’t feel the two suicides in January were related, there was still a concern that a teen, upon learning of a suicide, starts to see that as a viable solution to his or her own problems.

“We are always worried about it [contagion] when a teen dies by suicide because the whole high school is impacted. Even the proximity creates a sense of urgency,” said Kim Honeywell, the Nevada County suicide prevention coordinator and one of the professionals brought into the school after the Jan. 17 suicide. “We want to have a healthy, quick response.”

Because of the suicides of two Truckee High students, a 17 year old and an 18 year old in 2010 and 2011, the school was better prepared to deal with this year’s death. After the 2010 incident, educators and mental health professionals decided they needed to do a better job of educating students about, and preventing future, suicides. The result was the TTUSD Wellness Centers, which are located in the district’s three high schools — Truckee, North Tahoe, and Sierra. The centers, which opened in 2011, are a place where students can go to seek counseling or a supportive adult to talk to, or find a referral to other community wellness services. The Truckee High Wellness Center became a gathering place for students after the January suicide, which was instrumental in helping students cope with their sadness and pain, school officials say.

“The wellness centers were a safe place on campus for students to go with their grief,” said Corine Harvey, TTUSD executive director of student services. “Mental health isn’t always something that students  feel safe discussing at school. The centers have brought emotional well-being out into the open and made it a part of the school culture. With the recent tragedy, students looking for comfort and understanding were drawn to the centers.”

Since the Truckee Wellness Centers opened last spring, staff has done outreach to more than 1,000 students through assemblies and presentations in health and PE classes, and counseled more than 50 kids. This has helped school officials identify kids at risk for suicide.

The second program that was implemented in the schools after the earlier suicides was Sources of Strength, or SOS. A peer counseling program, SOS trains students from a wide-range of social groups to reach out to their classmates and be there for them to talk about their problems.

“SOS is an outreach program of kids watching over other kids,” Harvey said. “It’s like having eyes and ears in more places to identify kids at risk.”

SOS, which also has adult mentors, emphasizes the importance for kids to have trusted adults they can turn to, a key theme of suicide prevention.

“We want to make sure that all kids have a relationship with trusted adults and peers,” said Leri. “That is one of the biggest pieces for the school district.”

Thanks to Measure A, TTUSD still has on-campus counselors despite budget cuts — two at Truckee High, and one each at the other high, middle, and elementary schools — as well as the trained adult volunteers for the SOS program. Students are also encouraged to form a socio-emotional connection to one teacher who can act as a support for them over the four years of high school through the new weekly advisory program.

The last program generated by the previous deaths is the What’s Up Wellness Checks (based on Columbia University’s Teen Screen), which starts this month. The 10-minute computerized questionnaire screens for a variety of mental health conditions, such as depression, suicide risk, eating disorders, and substance abuse. The test will be given to all 10th graders whose parents sign the permission slip, but a parent of any student may request that their child take the test. (Sophomores are targeted because statistically that age group has the highest rate of suicide completion; eighth graders have the highest rate of suicide ideation.) The wellness checks have already been implemented in Grass Valley and Nevada City schools with much success, said Jen Rhi Winders, a teen social worker with Nevada County Behavioral Health who is helping to coordinate the wellness checks.

“It’s good for finding kids who are under the radar,” she said. “The wellness checks are as important as getting your kid’s vision checked. Kids may be depressed and hiding it. Those are the ones we are really trying to find.”

School and Community Responds

Friday, Jan. 18 was not a normal day at Truckee High. An announcement about the teen’s death was made in each class, and an email was sent out to all district parents. A group of kids sat in a corner of the library dealing with the suicide, and they were allowed to spend the day there, with adults checking on them periodically.

“We didn’t force them into anything,” Leri said. “Our plan was to have students supporting each other, and professionally trained adults available to deal with their grief.”

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December 13, 2018