Local leaders weigh in on school suicide prevention

2014-04-12T19:00:00Z 2014-04-13T23:30:08Z Local leaders weigh in on school suicide preventionCarmen McCollum carmen.mccollum@nwi.com, (219) 662-5337 nwitimes.com

When tragedies hit schools, districts throughout the region respond in a variety of ways.

Some are state-mandated, others based in the belief systems of the local communities — or leaderships of the schools.

Every school district in Indiana is required to have a crisis management plan addressing anything from building intruders to suicides.

New teachers and administrators seeking a license must have completed training in preventing child suicide and recognizing signs of children potentially contempleting suicide, said Indiana Department of Education spokesman Daniel Altman.

Two weeks ago, the Lake Central High School community mourned the suicides of two teens — one a former student and the other a current student.

Students staged a sit-in at the school March 31 to protest school officials not recognizing the March 27 death of the first student, Michael Doss. The second student died April 2.

Lake Central School Corp. leaders have not returned Times calls for comment.

School Town of Highland Superintendent Brian Smith said in his district, in the event of a tragedy involving students or staff, a team counsels anyone as needed.

Smith talked about a former student killed in Hammond near the beginning of the school year.

"It was a very tragic situation. ... It was tough on our kids," he said.

Smith said administrators and counselors did a nice job working with students. Students were excused to attend the funeral, he said.

Lake Ridge Schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley said whenever a student dies, it's a shock.

Her district has 12 school safety specialists, including herself, who attended the Indiana School Safety Specialist Academy. In Indiana, districts also must have these specialists, which differ from school resource officers.

Lake Central's controversy has been noticed by other districts.

"I'm only speaking for Lake Ridge, but in a student death, we would probably announce the name and have a moment of silence," Johnson-Shirley said. "People grieve in different ways."

Union Township School Corp. Superintendent John Hunter said if tragedy occurs, it's handled on a case-by-case basis.

"We put systems in place that will provide support for the family, students and staff who may be affected by the loss," he said.

School Town of Munster Assistant Superintendent Steve Tripenfeldas said administrators recently were reviewing the district's crisis management plan. He said policies are reviewed about every six months. 

"If there is a suicide, we make an announcement of the death without referencing the word suicide," Tripenfeldas said. "We don't want a contagion effect or a copycat."

The district puts together a building team and a district team. Counseling will take as long as necessary, he said.

Valparaiso Community Schools Superintendent Mike Berta said he wouldn't second-guess another school district, referring to Lake Central.

"Every school leader, every teacher and every staff member has the best interests of students at heart," Berta said. "We have to make our best judgement within the parameters we have."

Duneland School Corp. Assistant Superintendent Jim Goetz said every district is different and building administrators generally have their "finger on the pulse" of the school.

"You want to make sure you don't glamorize it," he said. "You want to make sure there are no copycats."

The Duneland district has guidance counselors in every school, even the elementary schools. 

Merrillville Community School Corp. Superintendent Mark Sperling said sometimes educators discover students are having problems through Facebook or other social media. He said parents and a mental health professional are notified to determine if the student is a threat to himself or others.

Hanover Community School Corp. Superintendent Tom Taylor said his district's plan is proactive. Teachers are always looking for signs of depression or other issues.

Hanover had three counselors Friday in Merrillville at the District 1 Northwest Indiana Suicide Prevention Council's program to prevent suicide.

Some counselors said suicides lead to other questions, including if the student's picture should go in the yearbook.

Taylor said Hanover tries to be sensitive to the family's wishes.

"In my experience, sometimes the family does want the picture in the yearbook and they request a copy. It's another way to memorialize their son or daughter," he said.

In Thornton Fractional high schools in Calumet City and Lansing, District 215 has a policy meant to make staff more aware of conditions to indicate a student is suffering from problems that could become more serious if not addressed.

Superintendent Creg Williams said the policy is reviewed annually.

Parents must be informed before any action is taken by school officials, but Williams said the policy comes into play about two or three times each school year. There have been no student suicides during that time period, he said.

Williams cited one instance of a student last year who was showing signs of depression.

“We were able to identify it early, enabling her to get the help she needed,” he said.

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