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Senate bill enhances school district's suicide training

Posted: June 4, 2012 - 8:40am

Some Kenai Peninsula Borough School District employees already receive suicide awareness and intervention training, but thanks to new legislation, such training will be expanded to more teachers who interact with at-risk youth.

Guidance for troubled students is currently offered through school counselors, psychologists and administrators, for the most part, said John O'Brien, KPBSD director of secondary education.

Gov. Sean Parnell on May 23 signed two pieces of legislation aimed at strengthening the state's effort toward suicide prevention. Senate Bill 137 will require all KPBSD, and other districts' personnel, receive annual training, increasing the number of staff educated about the issue.

Alaska has the highest rate of suicide per capita in the country, particularly among teens, young men and Alaska Natives. From 2000 to 2009, there were 56.1 suicides for 100,000 Alaskan young men ages 15-24, according to data compiled by the state Bureau of Vital Statistics.

The bill, also called the Jason Flatt Act, mandates at least two hours of training for school personnel who work with seventh- through 12th-grade students. Development and implementation of the training is under way, officials said.

The Alaska Mental Health Board and Advisory Board on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse has partnered with many organizations statewide to establish goals, training programs, and resources for staff in suicide prevention, according to an Alaska State Legislature Press Release.

Training likely will be relayed through a computer program, an education module, approved by the state's Department of Education and Early Development.

KPBSD personnel undergo suicide training every two years; the last occurred in April. During the training, the counselors, psychologists and administrators learned how to use the district's Suicide Awareness and Intervention Manual.

The manual includes risk factors and warning signs, behaviors associated with at-risk students and an intervention flow chart. It also includes a checklist and numerous assessment forms.

There are different protocols depending on a student's risk level, as well as plans for students who are recognized as suffering from mental health problems.

If a teacher receives information or is concerned about a student, they typically contact the school's counselor or psychologist to handle the assessment, O'Brien said.

"It depends on the size of the school and what's available for resources there," he said.

KPBSD lead psychologist Tim McIntyre worked with others to update the manual in 2010. The information in the manual is revised and expanded regularly, according to the manual's introduction by McIntyre.

O'Brien said smaller schools do not have psychologists on hand everyday, so the principal may assess potential at-risk students.

Sen. Betty Davis, D-Anchorage, sponsored the bill and has spoken about the negative impacts on individuals and families. This bill, while not a solution by itself, will help reduce the "silent epidemic" of youth suicide through educational and awareness programs, she said in a letter supporting the bill.

According to the 2011 statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 8.7 percent of Alaska high school students have attempted suicide one or more times.

Erin Neisinger, a school counselor for villages in the Alaska Gulf Coast region and KPBSD employee, worked on the bill with other team members. The team attends teleconferences every two months, focusing their attention on awareness and post-intervention, steps taken after a suicide.

"It's hard for people to adjust (after a suicide), so how to help them is just as complicated," she said.

She has presented the progress of the bill to the district's counselors, detailing how the district can adjust to the changes in mandatory suicide training.

Neisinger said she hopes to offer additional, professional in-person training; something that will help reduce the stigma associated with suicide.

"It would be better if it's not just on the computer, so people can have a dialogue about suicide and gain a deeper understanding of the risks," she said.

Another important consideration is the difficulty in detecting thoughts of self-harm among students, because generational differences in communication and personal relationships are varied.

"Youth are going to talk to their peers before they talk to adults," said Tess Dally, a Peninsula Community Health Services emergency services clinician, during a mid-January interview. "They communicate in ways that adults aren't familiar with. They're texting, and they're on Facebook."

The Alaska Association of Student Governments, a partner of the bill, is looking into programs that address those modern issues.

Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at jerzy.shedlock@peninsulaclarion.com.

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