Culture of Caring

True Story

True Story

A local suicide prevention center (SPC) offers free training for students and staff to all schools and organizations in its region. Representatives meet with school counselors and administrators in the area to explain the programs available and schedule training months in advance. The presentations are done in small groups, usually one class at a time. Depending on the size of the school, district, or organization, it can take anywhere from one day to two weeks for the team to meet with all students and staff.

It may surprise you to learn that the small SPC team of counselors and presenters is not booked up every week of the year. Typically, they are contacted only after a school has experienced the death of a student by suicide. When that happens, the schools are desperate for help and will accept all the guidance and support they can get.

Training school personnel in suicide prevention

I’ll tell you the story of one of those school districts. Several years ago, a small district in Sun Valley, Anywhere, USA, experienced seven youth suicides within a two-week period. Counselors contacted their local SPC. The team went to the district and worked with counselors and administrators to discuss a plan of action. They talked about how to communicate with the community and local media, scheduled training for staff and students, and provided support to the district.

After helping the district to develop a suicide prevention policy, the team agreed to provide ongoing training to students and staff every year. The lead counselor was in charge of making arrangements, and the administration was on board.

For five years, all students in grades 7-12 received age-appropriate training with their teachers in the classrooms at all times. Each student completed a simple paper screener at the end of every presentation. Usually about 10-15% of the students in every class indicated that they or a friend was struggling. Counselors met confidentially with each student and notified parents when needed. There were no suicides during those five years.

Gradually, as often happens in school districts, counselors moved on, and new administrators came in at campus and district levels. The new superintendent had different priorities. The urgency to provide suicide prevention training waned.

A newly hired social worker scheduled the week-long training but neglected to inform teachers and administrators, not realizing they needed time to plan ahead for the scheduling changes. Parents received permission/opt-out forms a day or two before the presentations were to begin, and many were not returned.

What went wrong?

All but three seniors at the high school opted out of participating in the prevention training. Teachers were not aware the sessions would take place during their class periods. Administrators were unaware of the program and were not supportive. The SPC had no choice but to cancel the program.

Was the problem political, lack of awareness, or simply an oversight? This happened during a period of political upheaval when parents started demanding more say in what teachers teach in schools. A movement among angry politicians urged parents to take control over what schools can teach. Parents were encouraged to demand that their schools ban books, ban teaching about uncomfortable historical facts, ban teaching social-emotional skills (SEL), and anything else that might make their children feel bad. Granted, those parents may believe that they were protecting their children from harm by shielding them from information that might make them feel bad or worry that they have done something wrong. But they are also preventing them from learning how to deal with uncomfortable situations.

Not only was there no planning or preparation, but on the morning the presentations were scheduled to begin, the SPC presenters learned that a student at one of the schools in the district had died by suicide two weeks before. The school community had not been informed. The principal at the school, who had never received training in suicide prevention, reasoned that the student was not well-liked and had few friends, so it was not necessary to release information about the death. 

Hindsight vs Foresight

It’s always easier to see the picture in hindsight and realize what could have been done differently. Here’s what they should have done.

  • The district should have maintained their relationship with local SPC.
  • The district should train staff annually in suicide prevention, review the suicide prevention plan, and make sure that each school has a suicide prevention plan in place.
  • The plan should name a suicide prevention coordinator for the district or each school site.
  • Notify the school community of the student’s death before the news traveled through the grapevine.
  • Follow guidelines for postvention.
  • Use the opportunity to recognize the student’s death and teach the community about suicide prevention.
  • Maintain suicide prevention plans and procedures every year.
  • Create and sustain a culture of caring culture of caring where it is expected that staff and students are connected with each other. 

Don’t let this be a story about your school district. Take time to learn how to save lives. If you already have a suicide prevention policy, find time to review it and make sure everyone in the district is familiar with it.

You have probably seen articles about the increase in youth mental illness and suicides during the pandemic. Don’t think it won’t happen at your school. The statistics tell the story. One day there will be a suicide death that affects your school or district. Will you be prepared?

A Culture of Caring: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Schools (K-12) was created as a resource for educators who want to know how to get started and what steps to take to create a suicide prevention plan that will work for their schools and districts. It is written from my perspective as a school principal and survivor of suicide loss, not an expert in psychology or counseling. I hope that any teacher, school counselor, psychologist, principal, or district administrator can pick up this book, flip to a chapter, and easily find helpful answers to the questions they are likely to have about what schools can do to prevent suicide.

Theodora Schiro