BEEKMANTOWN — Schools are prepared for mass shootings; it’s the threat everyone fears most.
“We spend so much time practicing lockdown response and fire drills, but, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we’re so much more likely to have a (suicide) death (among students),” said Jeff Sisson, Champlain Valley Educational Services’ health, safety and risk management specialist.
“We need to spend more time and attention on those things.”
The Beekmantown School District knows that reality better than most, having lost two students to suicide since 2016; one occurred just this past December.
Administrators developed their Suicide Prevention Plan a few years ago through an exhaustive process that included gathering input from numerous sources including Sisson; Bonnie Black, director of Employee Assistance Services at Behavioral Health Services North; and Maureen Underwood, director of the suicide prevention specialist group Underwood and Associates.
“Every district seemed to have something that was at least bare bones, but I had heard through the grapevine that (Beekmantown was) really putting in the research and trying to come up with something that was really comprehensive,” Sisson said.
The goal was to come up with a streamlined plan that all the districts in the county could use.
“When emergencies happen, we call on each other for support,” said Dave Manney, dean of students at Beekmantown High School and one of those who helped develop the plan.
So if called to assist, he added, “when we walk into their building, it’s not a different process.”
Beekmantown Central hosted a summit for area schools last November to share plans and protocols for suicide prevention and how to best respond to prevent further tragedies.
“Some schools said they didn’t really have a thorough plan; some had one similar,” Manney said. “The goal was to share what we had, but also find out what others had, and just talk resources.”
AN ADULT TO TRUST
Beekmantown’s initiative involves a step-by-step prevention and response plan followed by a predetermined crisis response team made up of administration, school counselors, Behavioral Health Services North and school psychologists, among others.
The plan dictates that each school principal designate a prevention coordinator to act as “a point of contact in each school for issues relating to suicide prevention and plan implementation.”
It is also protocol that all staff members must immediately report at-risk students to a school counselor and go through annual professional development to help them become attuned to risk factors.
It’s all a part of the bigger focus that the school has on creating relationships between staff and students to help them feel safer, said Middle School Assistant Principal Mike Johnson, who serves on the Crisis Team.
“Making those connections is the most important thing we do as educators,” he said. “If every child has an adult in the building that they can talk to, that they can trust, that’s No. 1 one goal.”
The yearly training also includes instruction on:
• Protective factors.
• Response procedures.
• Additional information regarding groups of students at elevated risk for suicide.
“We have to make sure that we’re accessible to our kids in multiple ways, whether it’s a coach, a bus driver, someone who works in the cafeteria or a teacher that they have in class,” Johnson said.
The district has also begun utilizing full-time mental health clinicians from Behavioral Health Services North in an effort to connect students with help that some wouldn’t otherwise get.
“That’s part of the prevention piece — how we can connect kids who may not have transportation or whose parents may not be able to bring them to mental health professionals,” Johnson said.
The school-based program has been in existence for a number of years, with a full-time clinician at Cumberland Head Elementary and two full-time clinicians for the district’s main campus.
They work very closely with school staff to help quickly connect at-risk kids to necessary services.
“It is a crucial service that we rely on and are appreciative of,” Johnson said.
The plan also includes step-by-step instruction on how to deal with the risk-assessment and student-referral process, differences in dealing with in-school and out-of-school suicide attempts, and the re-entry procedure for students who attempted suicide.
The district’s curriculum has also seen the addition of “developmentally appropriate, student-centered youth suicide prevention education materials,” according to the plan.
Many elementary and Middle School classrooms have implemented “Zones of Regulation” to help students identify their emotions, Johnson said.
And the district has started offering “Managing and Expressing Emotion” programs.
Students can take part in three two-hour sessions facilitated by school psychologists to learn to identify frustration and anger and how to respond to them in healthy ways.
Manney knows the Beekmantown district’s plan isn’t the be-all, end-all of plans but that they do have something useful to share.
That was the point of last November’s meeting for other county schools.
“We used different scenarios to show the benefits of having a working document and see how the plan works,” Manney said.
“We discussed the benefits of dealing with tragic situations similarly throughout the county, considering we often share support staff.”
The school continued the conversation with another summit-like event March 26, where faculty from seven districts, Champlain Valley Educational Services and Behavioral Health Service North spent more time collaborating on how the schools can help each other.
The day began with all of the members of the participating districts forming a circle in the High School library to share their expectations for the event, as well as what progress they’ve made at their respective schools since the November session.
BREAK THE STIGMA
Johnson and Manney both think the event they helped host last fall helped shine light on the fact that incidents like this can happen anywhere, anytime.
“There’s always this overwhelming thought that ‘this doesn’t happen around here,’ or ‘this doesn’t happen to us,’ so it’s always being mindful that as educators that we always have to be prepared for things that can come up,” Johnson said.
“We’re never going to be immune to all the problems of society that we see on the news.”
One of the biggest steps they’re focused on doing moving forward is continuing to create environments where getting help is seen as OK.
“There’s a huge stigma, not just for students but adults as well, that if you go to a therapist, there’s something wrong with you,” Manney said.
“If you broke your leg, you’d get it taken care of. If your brain is not working appropriately, you go to see somebody.
“It’s no different.”
Email Ben Watson:
WHERE TO GET HELP
Seek help if you’re considering suicide.
For emotional crises:
National Crisis Text Line: 74141
Text: got5 to reach a crisis counselor in New York state.
The toll-free 24-hour North Country Crisis Helpline number is (866) 577-3836. That number is answered by members of the Clinton County Mobile Crisis Team Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Outside those hours, it is answered by an on-call crisis service.
Out-of-county calls are accepted but other options are:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK (8255).
The Essex County Mental Health Association Hope Line, (800) 440-8074. That number is staffed 24-7; leave a message and your call will be returned within 10 minutes.
Visit the Clinton County NY Coalition to Prevent Suicide’s Facebook page for education and resources.
If a friend of yours posts suicidal content on Facebook, let someone know — an adult, the police. And visit http://tinyurl.com/nuvnm29 to report it.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: Champlain Valley is a resource for suicide-survivor support. Call 518-561-2685.
For counseling, contact:
• Clinton County Mental Health, 518-565-4060.
• Behavioral Health Services North Adult Clinic, 518-563-8000 (staffed around the clock).
• Essex County Mental Health Clinic, 518-873-3670; after-hour emergencies, (888) 854-3773.
• In northern Franklin County, around the clock, 518-483-3261; southern Franklin County, 891-5535.