Concord schools put enhanced focus on suicide prevention efforts

  • Concord School District Building Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/12/2021 5:24:29 PM

When Concord schools reopen in the fall, each building will have a “suicide prevention liaison,” a school psychologist who will serve as the point of contact when a student is believed to be at an elevated risk of self-harm.

District-wide, Concord plans to put an extra focus on student emotional well-being, with an eye toward suicide prevention.

Last week the Concord School Board passed a detailed suicide prevention plan that lays out the protocol for district staff to follow in order to assess the risk of suicide and intervene if necessary, and also respond to a suicide death if it happens.

The 92-page document was created by district administrators at the request of board members, who directed staff to begin the work in January. It’s a requirement in New Hampshire for school districts to have a suicide prevention plan like this on the books, since New Hampshire lawmakers passed Senate Bill 282, addressing suicide prevention for school-age children, in 2019.

“It provides us a road map and foundation for both the preventative work that is so critical for us, as well as resources,” Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley said Monday. “If there is a death by suicide in our district, we will have the resources to fall back to. I think that is very helpful and comforting to people to know there are processes, procedures, examples and strong information that can be shared with the community, staff, students and families, in that event.”

When drafting the policy, district staff gathered input from outside resources, including experts from Riverbend Community Mental Health Center and NAMI New Hampshire, along with Concord’s own school psychologists and counselors.

“In our community, it’s not going to be a matter of ‘if,’ it is going to be a matter of ‘when’ this gets used,” board member Gina Cannon said at the July 6 meeting. “It’s an amazing resource we should all look at and we should all use.”

Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for children and adolescents in the United States. In New Hampshire, 121 youth and young adults between the ages of 10 and 24 died by suicide between 2015 and 2018, according to the NH Suicide Prevention 2019 Annual Report. Concord-area Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, which include data from Concord, Bow, Hopkinton, Hillsboro-Deering, Merrimack Valley, John Stark Regional, Pembroke and Pittsfield schools, 197 high school students said in 2019 that they had “seriously considered” attempting suicide in the last 12 months.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, suicide attempts among younger children are often impulsive and can be associated with feelings of sadness, confusion, anger or problems with attention and hyperactivity. Among teenagers, suicide attempts can associated with feelings of stress, self-doubt, pressure to succeed, financial uncertainty, disappointment and loss.

Concord School Districts’s prevention plan lists warning signs to look out for in children’s behavior, such as talking or writing about death or suicide in a way that’s out of the ordinary, having feelings of hopelessness or anger or behaving in an unusually reckless manner. The plan includes a list of direct and indirect verbal cues that may indicate a child is considering a suicide attempt.

The policy establishes designated “suicide prevention liaison” positions, held by school psychologists, in each school building. Liaisons are headed by a district “suicide prevention coordinator,” Concord High School psychologist Margie Borawska-Popielarz.

The plan formats the safety screening procedures both in writing and as flow charts that school personnel can follow at the elementary, middle and high school level. Palley said the flowcharts provide a more abbreviated version of the procedure for people who process information better visually.

“I think there are people who are more linear and people who might otherwise appreciate flowcharts,” Palley said. “We try to make this designed in such a way that they can be accessed easily by a variety of audiences.”

The plan includes protocol for intervening before a suicide attempt, including supervising the student, contacting parents or guardians, and requesting a mental health assessment.

The plan also lists correct protocol for after a suicide death, including notifying students in small groups, sending out a letter to families, providing grief counseling and working with community mental health partners to prevent suicide “contagion,” where one suicide death may contribute to another.

“I think it could be very beneficial for any kind of loss. We do deal with loss in the classroom, kids have losses,” board member Brenda Hastings said July 6. “I would encourage a copy in every classroom. It’s a resource to have in hand.”

School board members spoke highly of the plan’s thoroughness, before ultimately voting 8-0 to adopt it.

“The thoroughness of this plan and the depth of resources in the community that is brought into this plan is very impressive,” said board president Jim Richards. “It’s important information for not only the board, but parents to read as well, to know what’s available out there and some steps you should know before something ever happens so you have a guideline should something as awful as this happen.”

Eileen O

Eileen O'Grady is a Report for America corps member covering education for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. O’Grady is the former managing editor of Scope magazine at Northeastern University in Boston, where she reported on social justice issues, community activism, local politics and the COVID-19 pandemic. She is a native Vermonter and worked as a reporter covering local politics for the Shelburne News and the Citizen. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Globe, U.S. News & World Report, The Bay State Banner, and VTDigger. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northeastern University and a bachelor’s degree in politics and French from Mount Holyoke College, where she served as news editor for the Mount Holyoke News from 2017-2018.

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