By JUDY SHERIDAN
The Aledo School Board approved the LifeLines Suicide Prevention Program in February, lining up with a recommendation from the Student Health Advisory Council, which has spent a year reviewing choices.
The optional program stems from House Bill 1386, which relates to the “public health threat posed by youth suicide” and the qualifications of those who serve as therapists in public schools. It is associated with House Bill 1942, the anti-bullying bill. Both were approved in 2011.
The SHAC endorsed the prevention portion of LifeLines, Director of Student Services and Safety Scott Kessel said, which offers staff and parent training resources and student-produced DVDs for lessons.
“It does not include a screening tool to assess which students might be at risk for making a suicide attempt,” he told the board, “but staff believes a screening might be too personal, questions might not be answered honestly, and it would require active consent from parents that would be very challenging and highly unlikely to obtain.”
The SHAC did not support the intervention and post-intervention sections, Kessel said, because administrators think the district “has effective processes in place to intervene when suicidal ideation is made and in the event of a tragic student death.”
The curriculum will be implemented through high school credit health courses, taken in eighth grade, ninth grade or on the high school campus.
Trustee Johnny Campbell asked Kessel to sum up the money and time the district has spent on bullying program since the 2011 legislation passed.
Trustee Dr. David Tillman wanted to know if the district monitors students who take antidepressants or undergo psychological therapy, and Kessel said it does so when the information is offered, but has no way of compelling parents to release it.
Tillman suggested a memorandum be sent out requesting the information.
Suicide, bullying and Aledo ISD
In an interview last week Kessel said Aledo ISD has had no suicides in the two-and-one-half years he’s been on staff, although a small number of attempts have been made.
“It’s important for the community to realize that the district doesn’t always know,” he added. “Ninety-nine percent of suicides don’t happen at school.”
He is reluctant to ask about the mental health of students, Kessel said, because many families regard that to be a private matter.
“It would be useful to have that information,” he said, “but I think we need to tread lightly.”
A mental health condition is a risk factor for teen suicide, Kessel said, also pointing to a student’s lack of social connectedness, the absence of family support and the access to guns or large quantities of prescription medication.
“LifeLines has a parent component and a staff component,” he said, “but the main part is about peers — proactive friends — and fostering that. Eighty-five percent of students are bystanders, not bullies or victims.
“It’s not uncommon when kids make an attempt for other kids to have heard them talk about it.”
Suicide warning signs
One key factor that predisposes students to thoughts of suicide, Kessel said, is the failure to participate in “organized, structured activities where adults promote leadership and responsibility.”
Unrecognized medical conditions can come into play.
Students may raise warning flags by showing little interest in school, he said, or by exhibiting drastic changes in behavior like overeating, oversleeping or not eating.
The district began working to combat bullying in the fall of 2012, Kessel said, implementing a way for students, parents and teachers to report episodes online.
Counselors on every campus talked to their students about the problem, said Kessel, who also led meetings informing parents.
“My feedback is that students have an increased awareness of bullying and how to report it,” he reflects, “but they are reticent to do so because they fear retaliation.”
Another challenge, Kessel said, is deciding when the district should engage.
“[Bullying] sometimes happens via social media [off school grounds] and there’s no carryover,” he said, “yet parents want the school to do something about it.
“When reports are made administrators have to drill down to whether it’s taking place in a school setting with an impact on the educational environment.”
New McAnally pilot
In addition to LifeLines, trustees have approved an anti-bullying pilot curriculum for McAnally Intermediate sixth graders which will begin next year as part of social studies.
Developed by an international non-profit called Committee for Children, Second Step is designed to promote both social and academic success, Kessel said.
Offering instruction in empathy, emotion management and problem solving, the curriculum has been shown to lead to an increase in social confidence — specifically with sixth graders — a decrease in physical aggression and a decline in anxious and depressed behaviors, he said.
“As much of the research surrounding bullying behaviors points to a lack of empathy being a root cause for why kids become bullies, the SHAC was very interested in the program,” Kessel said. The curriculum, recommended by a McAnally social studies teacher, targets K-8 and will be taught in 15 multi-media-based lessons, he said, with reinforcement through individual and group activities.
Within the SHAC there are plans for a district-wide character education program to begin next year, Kessel said. “It will be integrated with Community Partners to promote a community of character,” he said, “not just about not bullying but how to act with integrity.”