The middle and high school years can be a dark and difficult time for some children.
According to the American Federation for Suicide Prevention, adolescents and teens have a suicide rate of about 11 per 100,000 deaths. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. And those are just the ones that accomplish their goal. AFSP estimates that for every young person who dies at their own hand, 25 more have made an attempt.
In June, the General Assembly passed Act 71, a law that requires schools to put suicide prevention policies in place for students starting in sixth grade. The Keystone State is one of only five in the country with this provision.
Centre County lost Penn State freshman and State College Area High School graduate Jack Crean, 18, on Sunday to a fall from a crane on campus, ruled a suicide by Centre County Coroner Scott Sayers.
So where are the county schools when it comes to preparing for Act 71?
“We just actually revised our suicide prevention policy last October. We updated it to be a more extensive suicide and self-harming prevention policy,” said Jeanne Knouse, director of learning enrichment, gifted support and student services for State College Area.
The district looks at harmful acts such as cutting — in which someone slices at his or her skin with a knife or razor as a form of psychological release — as related to the most serious form of self-harm: taking one’s life.
“Through training, we had speakers come in and recommend we move in that direction, and basically, when it comes to self-harming, it can develop into suicide,” Knouse said. “With the policy, we can follow the same procedures for both self-harming and suicide. We started our straight talk series two years ago to educate the community and parents and students on these issues.”
SCASD also has an integrated mental health team with a mix of providers, Penn State psychiatric clinic personnel, school representatives and others working together on a regular basis to talk about individual cases and see what help a student might need and what services could be provided. Students threatening to hurt themselves, or those actually doing so, however, are handled quickly.
Knouse said the district is in the process of setting up an even more extensive suicide prevention process to meet the Act 71 standards.
Not all prevention efforts have to be clinical. Some can be as simple as realizing what issues can make children feel like outsiders and take steps to change them.
At Bellefonte Area School District’s board meeting last week, its members approved the bylaws for the high school to have a club for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT youth are more than twice as likely to commit or attempt suicide.
Superintendent Cheryl Potteiger said that the addition of the club is a way to make everyone feel included, and something she thinks may limit bullying that can lead to other issues.
Although Bald Eagle, Bellefonte and Penns Valley area school districts don’t have suicide prevention policies yet, the districts regularly train employees to look for signs of those students — or others — heading in that direction.
Amelia Kelm is Bald Eagle’s newest district psychologist. She, along with four guidance counselors, acts as the go-to staff member to help students through problems, Superintendent Jeff Miles said. Staff are trained to identify indicators of a student in distress.
“BEA’s slogan is ‘It’s cool to care,’ ” Miles said. “The district has no proposed suicide prevention plan yet, but we’ll meet, establish something and do what we think is best for our students.”
He said administrators and the board will meet in September to begin planning a policy for the district.
“We talk about this all the time,” Miles said. “As educators, our job extends far beyond the classroom. We encourage our students to be good stewards of the school and their classmates. ... Our teachers are outstanding in reporting and addressing situations.”
It’s similar at Penns Valley.
For someone afraid to speak with an official about a problem, the district’s website includes a link to anonymously report abuse to the school. Superintendent Brian Griffith didn’t say how many reports the link gets a year.
Griffith said the district adopted a positive-behavior support plan for students who require specific intervention to address behavior that interferes with learning.
The program, started in 2005, is amended as needed. Its mission is to support positive behavior techniques “to ensure that students shall be free from demeaning treatment and unreasonable use of restraints or other aversive techniques,” a statement from the district said.
“When I talk about suicide prevention, I look at the overall school climate and community culture,” Griffith said. “We need a plan to comply with the state, but we’re already on the forefront of confronting the issues that lead to that.”
Penns Valley holds annual assemblies that target bullying, suicide and cyber problems, and last year trained its staff to look for indicators of students who need special attention.
In Bellefonte, Potteiger said, training staff to look for the signs of someone who might be depressed or anxious isn’t limited to just educators.
“We have training for all staff,” she said. “That includes custodial, maintenance and lunch monitors as well who interact daily with the students.”
Potteiger said there will be a districtwide meeting for faculty and staff to evaluate the first week of school, and to discuss issues that revolve around things such as bullying and ways to effectively draft a suicide prevention policy.
Philipsburg-Osceola put a threat assessment process in place last school year to identify student problems as they come up and find a way to help, Director of Student Services Cindi Marsh said.
Educators also say it is never too early to try to keep students safe, even from themselves. Student assistance program teams are in place in all four P-O buildings, able to work quickly to determine when help is needed and to act immediately to set it up.
“I know suicide is not big in elementary, but (with) the elementary SAP, we’re watching for signs and indications,” Marsh said.