Concord School Board puts forth suicide prevention plan

  • The Concord School Board meets in the auditorium at Concord High School on Jan. 4, 2021.

Monitor staff
Published: 1/5/2021 4:42:26 PM

Concord School District is developing a plan for youth suicide prevention and response, and is piloting a new technology to monitor student web activity for potential warning signs.

At the Concord School Board’s first meeting of the year Monday night, the board unanimously passed a policy on that directs the district to create the plan, which includes guidelines for assessing the risk of youth suicide, for intervening and preventing it and responding to attempted suicides. The plan, which is required by state law, has a tight deadline of March 31 so the board voted to waive the first reading of the policy and move straight to approval.

The policy names things that need to be included in the district’s plan, including a yearly two-hour training in suicide awareness and prevention for all school building employees, and resources listed in the student handbook and district website. District employees already did a training this year, at the beginning of the school year, according to Assistant Superintendent Donna Palley.

“Bus driver, food service worker, administrative assistant, superintendent, every one of us had to go through that training,” Murphy said.

The policy requires there to be designated “suicide prevention liaisons” in each building, headed by a district suicide prevention coordinator. The coordinator will be in charge of prevention efforts, written resources, educational programming and staff training, while the building liaisons serve as point-of-contact people who receive reports and respond when students are thought to be at an elevated risk of suicide. In Concord, these people will be the district’s school psychologists.

“As soon as possible, our trained social workers, our trained school psychologist, our trained school counselors are all on this, and so they are right there to provide that support for that youngster immediately, and not wait until it is too late,” interim Superintendent Kathleen Murphy told the board Monday.

Murphy said the district has just begun piloting a computer program called Lightspeed Alert that uses artificial intelligence to monitor student web activity on school computers and alerts administrators if a student visits a website or uses a search term that indicates they may be at risk for self-harm or suicide. The district’s use of the program is still in its early stages, and Murphy said they are still figuring out issues like which personnel will be involved in response, and what type of web activity will require action.

“We have the product, we can identify situations where a youngster may be hurting themselves,” Murphy told the board. “The piece we are trying to put together now is who can help us with that.”

She said the search term will alert the district, who will in turn alert the school administrators, who will contact parents or the police department depending on the situation.

Board member Gina Cannon expressed concern about student privacy in having their web activity monitored. Murphy said monitoring is part of the district’s technology use policy, and she will check with educators to make sure students understand the policy.

Board member Jonathan Weinberg raised the question of whether the monitoring system can distinguish between an at-risk student searching something harmful and a non-risk student trying to learn about the topic. Murphy said the key words will alert administrators, who may or may not choose to follow up depending on whether the web activity is concerning, or simply for educational purposes.

“We know that older youngsters do reports. One of the topics may very well be on teenage suicide,” Murphy said. “When they start going to different sites to learn more about it that might come up as a flag, but when that flag comes up we will recognize that it is a student that is working on a report or a project.”

The board will continue to make suggestions to the district about the plan, and Murphy will present the plan to the board in March.

Monday’s board meeting was the first for its three newest members: Weinberg, Kate West and Brenda Hastings.

Jim Richards, who has been acting as board president since former president Jennifer Patterson’s resignation in August, was elected president for the year. Former board secretary Barb Higgins was elected to be vice president, and Cannon was elected to be secretary.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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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