BEEKMANTOWN — After a student died by suicide in 2016, Beekmantown Central School leaders re-visited procedures in the face of such a tragedy.
“We felt like we could have had a better plan in place; something concrete to look at and go from,” said Dave Manney, dean of students at Beekmantown High School and a central figure in the development of the protocols that now guide the district in both suicide prevention and, as it's called "postvention."
The plan that evolved for the latter is as precise and detail-oriented as Beekmantown's steps for prevention, a very intentional move.
“Having a working document in front of you when a tragic situation occurs makes it more efficient and effective by employing faster or simpler working methods,” said Manney, who also serves on the Crisis Intervention Team.
“It does not matter what staff person is using it, the process is the same.”
That intervention strategy disseminates factual information about the death and also aims to:
• Reduce the risk of suicide contagion.
• Provide support to help people cope.
• Address the social stigma around the issue.
The straightforward nature of the plan proved helpful when the district had to use it last December, Manney said.
Zander LaDuke, 17, ended his life on Dec. 23; it was school break, so High School Principal Matthew Bezio was out of town.
But because everyone on the Crisis Response Team knew the necessary steps, Manney said, the response this time around went as smoothly as it could in a such a situation.
HERE TO HELP
An important piece of that process was the letter Superintendent of Schools Dan Mannix timed for the students' return from holiday break.
"It is with great sadness that I have to tell you that one of our students, Zander LaDuke, has taken his own life," he wrote.
"All of us want you to know that we are here to help you in any way we can."
That letter addressed the uncertainty, the many emotions that students and staff may have been feeling.
"A suicide death presents us with many questions that we may not be able to answer right away," Mannix wrote.
"Rumors may begin to circulate, and we ask that you not spread rumors you may hear — we'll do our best to give you accurate information as it becomes known to us."
NEWS TRAVELS FAST
In this age of social media, noted Plattsburgh City School District Superintendent Jay Lebrun, "news of a tragedy travels very quickly."
In fact, he said, it's pretty likely the extended school family will know the details of any tragedy "in a startlingly quick period of time."
The district's aim is to inform faculty, staff and families about a death not only because they should be made aware, Lebrun said, but to coordinate the delivery of appropriate support services with that news.
"If students or faculty learn of a tragedy via social media without the proper counseling supports or opportunities for dialogue, they too are at risk," he said.
It may be the district may at first describe a suicide as a "death," at that point lacking confirmation yet needing to reach out as soon as possible, Lebrun said.
A district-wide crisis plan lays out the protocol Plattsburgh City Schools follow; it was called into play last fall, when a Stafford Middle School student took her own life.
Student support professionals were re-deployed from other school buildings, Lebrun said.
"(We) explained to all faculty and staff what signs of student distress they should be looking for, and we conducted full threat assessments on many ... students about whom a concern was referred."
City Schools, Lebrun summarized, believes in transparency about the known facts.
"But it is critical that both general student/faculty supports and a system of identifying and supporting specific students with risk factors be in place."
Saranac Central School also activated its response plan last fall.
Malakai Arroyo was no longer a student there when he took his own life.
"Because of his siblings and friends in the (High School and Middle School), we provided support for those students in the same way we would have for a loss of a student who was in the school every day," Superintendent of Schools Jonathan Parks said.
RESPONDING TO MEDIA
This is why the response plan involves steps to take regarding the dissemination of information.
Beekmantown follows a similar protocol to Plattsburgh when it comes to that.
The district provides basic verifiable facts about a death with students, staff and parents and guardians before the coroner might rule it a suicide.
As well, a spokesperson is assigned to answer all media inquiries about the death.
The section of the plan on media relations also directs the spokesperson to encourage news outlets to not have a suicide be “front-page” news, as it may increase the danger to others who might be at risk.
“We’re looking at it as getting information,” Manney said. “(But) the student that’s on the edge, that we don’t know what they’re thinking, sees that, and it might be enough to be like, ‘Look at all this attention.’”
Manney said that an important part of the process has been involving the students, as “they’re the ones who know what’s going on.
“We’ve been trying to ... find out what do they need,” he said. “What is it that we’re not giving them that they need? I think we’re a work in progress in identifying and figuring that out from pre-K all the way through.”
Some students asked to be part of the planning, said Middle School Assistant Principal Mike Johnson, another key figure in prevention/postvention development.
“(They) are attending these meetings from like 5 to 7 at night, coming in on their own because they see it as an important legacy as seniors to leave to the other members of the school community,” he said.
This involvement, Manney said, has allowed the Crisis Team and students to better stay on the same page, especially when it comes to public memorials.
“Students have wants and wishes in how they want to respond to their peers,” he said.
“We understand that, but I think being able to sit down and discuss things with them and have them understand why the rationale behind what we’re saying and doing makes sense has huge value.”
After Zander's death, each class held a "moment of self-reflection/remembrance for people close to us that we have lost," as was described in Mannix's letter.
A memorial book was strategically placed in the High School counseling office so students choosing to share memories of him would be close to support services should they need them.
"Each of us will react to Zander's death in our own way," Mannix wrote, "and we need to be respectful of each other. ... Some of you may find you're having difficulty concentrating on your schoolwork, and others may find that diving into your work is a good distraction. ... If you'd like to talk to a counselor, just let your teachers know."
Memorials were discussed at the recent summit Beekmantown Central held for other school districts seeking to create or fine-tune their own protocols.
The group focused on the advantages and disadvantages of different ways to memorialize a student who dies by suicide — Beekmantown's main piece of advice was to be transparent and make sure that the students understand exactly why certain decisions are made.
The participants of that event, primarily school counselors and therapists, found value in combining the limited resources of the small, interconnected districts to come up with ways to improve.
“All of our students are connected,” said Alison Rosenbaum, a school counselor at Saranac High School.
“They’re hanging out with each other from different schools; they usually know about things before we know about things."
Manney echoed Rosenbaum’s sentiment, saying that unity is a driving force needed to make real change going forward.
“We compete athletically, but it’s good to come together with the common message that we all feel the same thing,” he said.
Manney said the schools will look to hold more events, with many of the participants hoping for a day to focus more heavily on prevention.
NO ONE ANSWER
Parks is on board with that.
After a number of Saranac Central staff members attended both summits put on by Beekmantown, he said, "our counselors are working on a plan, based in part on Beekmantown's plan, that specifies a series of events that would occur after the tragic loss of a student.
"This would include counseling, communications and regular follow-up contact with those affected most by the loss."
That plan is nearing completion, Parks said.
LeBrun observed that most school districts now recognize the need for preventative mental health services, as well as a crisis response plan.
"However, these seem to vary widely amongst districts, and with high rate of student/family mobility between districts, I do worry about continuity and consistency of programming."
Bonnie Black, as director of Employee Assistance Services at Behavioral Health Services North, has been a resource for Plattsburgh City Schools, Beekmantown and districts around the county as they craft their plans.
"There is no one definitive answer," she observed about the challenges of preventing suicide and protecting others after it has happened. "We're talking about human beings — every person is different.
"And we get evidence after the fact," she added, referring to the trial by fire some districts have experienced.
"A school district cannot go through this without learning something," she said. "Even if they need to learn more."
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