struggling

Young lives lost: Suicide prevention efforts expand slowly and cautiously in elementary schools

PHOTO: alvarez | Getty Images

A 9-year-old Denver boy felt desperate enough to take his own life on the fourth day of school. Last year, an Aurora fifth-grader also died by suicide. And in 2015, it was two Fort Collins sixth-graders.

These shockingly young victims raise particular alarm in a state where suicide rates are among the highest in the nation.

Such youth suicides are also forcing educators, parents, and lawmakers to grapple with an uncomfortable reality. Years of anti-bullying efforts haven’t done enough to change school culture, and suicide prevention efforts barely touch the elementary level even as suicide attempts by very young children seem to be increasing.

State Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat, voiced frustration about her unsuccessful efforts to pass legislation that would allow children as young as 12 to get counseling at school without first obtaining their parents’ consent. The current age limit is 15.

In 2019, she plans to push an ambitious proposal to assign social workers not just to every school but to every grade in elementary school. Initially, she said, legislation would test this idea on a small scale.

The issue of youth suicide is deeply personal for Michaelson Jenet. Her son, now a junior in high school, attempted suicide when he was 9, the same age as Jamel Myles, the Denver fourth-grader who died last week.

“I’m devastated by the loss of this young man, and I would hope that everyone in Colorado feels the loss,” Michaelson Jenet said. “No child should experience what he experienced, and together, I hope we can work together so that it never happens again.”

Myles’ mother said her son had recently come out as gay and was bullied at school.

Eric Sparks, assistant director of the American School Counselors Association, said while LGBTQ students often experience bullying and bullying may have played a role in Myles’ suicide, it’s hard to draw a direct line between the two.

“We never know for sure what’s happening with a student who has taken their own life. We have clues. We can look backwards. We can second guess ourselves or others. But we just don’t know for sure,” he said.

Regardless, it’s important for schools to establish a safe and inclusive culture from the first day of school, he said.

He noted that there are curriculums that cover LGBTQ issues for elementary-age students in an age-appropriate way, including one from the national advocacy organization, GLSEN. Such lessons aren’t about sex, but about respecting people with all kinds of differences.

While many Denver middle and high schools have Gay Straight Alliances or clubs for students who identify as LGBTQ or allies, there are no district-wide elementary-level programs, said Ellen Kelty, director of the Denver Public Schools department that oversees social workers and psychologists. School social workers and psychologists are trained in how to support gay and transgender students, and are available to consult with teachers, she said

Sparks acknowledged that teachers and school staff don’t always witness bullying because it takes place out of earshot, but said it’s important for them to talk to kids about reporting it.

“It’s not tattling. It’s making sure that adults know so they can address the situation,” he said.

Sarah Davidon, research director of the statewide advocacy group Mental Health Colorado, said for adults and adolescents who die by suicide there’s a high correlation with depression.

“With younger children that’s not the case. It tends to be more of an impulsive action,” she said. “It’s more related to not having the people around them to talk to or give them the support they need.”

It can be hard to attribute a child’s suicide to one thing, she said. In the case of Myles, “I think it can be attributed to a 9-year-old boy who didn’t feel like he had another option,” she said.

Jenna Glover, a child psychologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, said suicide attempts remain very rare for children under 10, but seem to be increasing. There’s no one obvious answer as to what’s driving the increase. It seems to be a combination of social media, which can turn bullying into a 24-7 torment, increased stress from kids being asked to accomplish more at younger ages, and adults not understanding how that stress can build up into a feeling that there’s no escape.

“We don’t think of our younger kiddos as having mental health problems,” Glover said. “We really need to be more proactive in asking our kids how they’re coping with these stressors.”

Glover said teaching kids skills for coping with big emotions is just as important as teaching reading and math, and those lessons should start in kindergarten.

“It’s a big responsibility to put on schools, but schools are in a good position to do something because they spend so much time with kids,” she said.

Davidon said schools also need help from the community to support students’ mental health, including strong partnerships with local mental health centers and information for educators about Colorado Crisis Services, which offers immediate crisis support via phone lines and text lines.

Jamel Myles’ case has echoes of last year’s death by suicide of a 10-year-old Aurora girl, Ashawnty Davis, a fifth-grader at Sunrise Elementary in the Cherry Creek School District. Her family said she took her life after a video of her confronting a bully was posted to social media. Lawmakers cited the case as they ordered the Colorado Department of Education to develop a model anti-bullying policy for districts to use. The state already requires that schools have a policy and makes some grants available to promote those efforts.

However, efforts to expand school-based suicide prevention efforts proved more challenging. Near the end of the session, a modest grant program that would train school staff – but not fellow students – to recognize the warning signs of suicide finally passed.

Two years ago, the legislature passed a bill allowing a state grant program that pays for mental health staff at secondary schools to expand to elementary schools. In part, it was a recognition of the growing incidence of mental health issues in younger students.

Last year, about three-dozen school districts, as well as several charter schools, received grants through the program. But demand far exceeded supply, with the state education department receiving $17.4 million worth of requests from 66 applicants and awarding $9.2 million to 42 applicants. Denver received money for 22 secondary schools.

Denver, like some other Colorado districts, has gradually extended suicide prevention and mental health promotion efforts into elementary schools in recent years, but the programming and services are often more limited than those for older children.

Last year, Denver Public Schools piloted a new suicide prevention curriculum for fifth-graders called Riding the Waves that teaches students to identify and cope with stress. The district tried it in five elementary schools, and the plan is to expand to more this year, Kelty said.

That expansion is a recognition that these issues are affecting younger and younger students.

“When I started years ago, it was high school issue,” Kelty said.

Most Denver elementary schools also teach a curriculum geared toward encouraging kindness and teaching students how to be a good friend, Kelty said. The district doesn’t mandate schools use a specific set of lessons, and different schools teach different curricula, she said.

The district also has a bullying prevention grant through the Colorado Department of Education that pays for a trainer who works with a small number of schools, Kelty said.

In addition, the district recently started giving some of its students a “universal screening” that checks on their mental health as well as their physical health. The screenings happened in about 70 of the district’s 200 schools last year, Kelty said. While it’s often obvious from their behavior which students are outwardly struggling, the screening is meant to identify those who may be internalizing feelings of depression or the effects of trauma, Kelty said.

Sparks, of the counselors association, said one lesson for schools from Myles’ death is to “always be vigilant about the health of your students and the culture of your school, that culture of inclusiveness for all students.”


RESOURCES

Colorado Crisis Line: 1-844-493-8255, coloradocrisisservices.org. You can chat online or text TALK to 38255.

Crisis Text Line: crisistextline.org. Text 741741 from anywhere in the nation to reach a counselor.

Mental Health First Aid Colorado: mhfaco.org. Classes teach participants the signs and symptoms of mental health challenges or crisis, what to do in an emergency, and where to turn for help.

Mental Health Colorado: https://www.mentalhealthcolorado.org/ This statewide advocacy organization offers a free mental health toolkit for schools.

Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado: www.suicidepreventioncolorado.org. The coalition works to reduce suicide through education and advocacy.

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.org. The foundation pays for research, raises awareness, and provides support to those affected by suicide.

Colorado Department of Education: Bullying Prevention: cde.state.co.us/mtss/bullying. Find current research, best practices, and grant programs.

Are you worried that your child might want to harm themselves? Here’s how to start that conversation.

making moves

In New York, a new focus on housing could also spur more diversity in schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
In 2016, the Community Education Council in Manhattan's District 3 approved a controversial school rezoning aimed in part at integrating schools.

On a recent morning in Brooklyn, principals, parents, and education leaders from across the state gathered to drill into the root causes of school segregation and develop plans to spur more diversity. Joining the discussion was someone unexpected: a representative from the state’s Fair and Equitable Housing Office.

“We want to see within your districts, what your challenges are, what your ideas are,” said Nadya Salcedo, the office’s director. “You can’t talk about integration and segregation without talking about housing.”

It is often taken as a given that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are. Yet the twin challenges of integrating where children live and learn are rarely tackled in tandem. In New York, two recent moves have the potential to address both.

The first: State education leaders who are working with local districts to craft school integration plans are also inviting housing officials to the table early on — and plan to include them throughout the process.

The second: In New York City, housing officials have launched a tiny pilot program to help low-income renters move into neighborhoods that offer more opportunities, defined partly by school performance. The initiative isn’t meant to tackle school segregation directly, but if it grows, it could result in more diverse classrooms.

Both are small and unconnected, involving officials from different agencies. Details about both the state and city efforts are scant, for now. But taken together, they suggest a new energy toward tackling housing issues that are often a barrier to more integrated schools.

“There have been some ripples of hope out there,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center. “But we still have a long ways to go.”

The meeting in Brooklyn brought together school district leaders who have been armed with a state grant to help improve schools by integrating them. Now, housing officials have been looped into that work to brainstorm how to collaborate.

The housing department “is working to help desegregate communities,” spokeswoman Charni Sochet wrote in an email. “This includes working with our federal, State and local partners.”

Similarly, the city began its housing pilot this summer but didn’t share details until this week, when the Wall Street Journal profiled the program. The 45 families in the program’s first phase are getting assistance searching for a new home — including rent vouchers that are worth more in wealthier neighborhoods, financial counseling to help them afford a move, and support navigating the intimidating New York City housing market.

“The mayor’s education and housing plans take dead aim at achievement and economic gaps decades in the making,” Jaclyn Rothenberg, a city spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “All students benefit from diverse classrooms. Neighborhoods benefit from a diverse community.”

The pilot is striking given what Mayor Bill de Blasio has said about housing in the city in the past. When asked how he plans to tackle school segregation, he has often argued that the city’s power is limited because schools reflect entrenched housing patterns and private choices by families about where to live. “We cannot change the basic reality of housing in New York City,” he said in 2017.

Families with rental vouchers often find it difficult to move out of segregated neighborhoods where schools tend to struggle under the weight of concentrated poverty. The city’s pilot could tackle those issues.

“At least now I’ll have a chance to apply to some of these apartments,” one participant, the mother of a 10- and 12-year-old, told the Wall Street Journal. “I’m moving to a better school district, and nothing else matters.”

In places such as Baltimore, similar “mobility” programs have included a sharp focus on helping families move to areas with better schools, and making sure that students adjust well to their new classrooms. On a wide scale, such efforts could create more diverse neighborhoods and learning environments, since income tracks closely with race and ethnicity — and schools with high test scores are often filled with white students and those from more affluent families.

It could also have profound effects on how children perform academically and later in life. Moving to a neighborhood with lower poverty rates can boost college attendance and future earnings, according to some of the most influential research on the topic.

Montgomery County, Maryland offers another example, where the housing commission randomly assigned families to public housing instead of letting them choose where to live. There, children in public housing who went to “advantaged” schools in less impoverished neighborhoods did better in math and reading than their peers who lived in public housing but attended the district’s least-advantaged schools, according to a report by the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank.

That result hews to a growing body of research that has found that students benefit from attending schools that are integrated by race and socioeconomic class.

How the city implements its pilot will matter if students and schools are to benefit most. Although some studies have found that housing programs can improve affected students’ academic performance, the effect can be modest and vary greatly depending on where families relocate and which schools their children attend.

New York City presents some additional challenges. With a vast system of school choice and programs that selectively sort students based on their past academic performance, students and neighborhoods aren’t as closely linked here as they are in other cities.

Recent research found New York City schools might be slightly less segregated if students actually stayed in their neighborhood schools. And simply living near a school does not guarantee access in cases where competitive entrance criteria are used to admit students — a process called screening that critics say contributes to segregation. School attendance boundaries can also separate students by race and class even when they live side by side, a dynamic exemplified by recent rezoning battles on the Upper West Side and in gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhoods.

In New York, the scale of the challenge is huge: The city has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, an ignominious superlative that also applies to neighborhoods. The politics of unraveling these issues can be explosive. Many advocates for both fair housing and more diverse schools caution that policies should work both ways, giving low-income families and people of color the chance to leave under-resourced schools and neighborhoods, while also boosting investments in classrooms and communities that have been historically neglected.

“It shouldn’t be an either-or,” said Freiberg, the Fair Housing Justice Center director. “You’re going to have to do both.”

Though conversations seem to just be getting started, integration advocates and housing experts are heartened by the small steps already taken.

“This is a dream come true for people in the housing world,” said Vicki Been, a former city housing official who is now faculty director at the New York University Furman Center. “We have always been looking for ways to get families into neighborhoods that have better schools, lower crimes, better job opportunities.”

Reema Amin contributed reporting. 

money matters

Haven’t heard of participatory budgeting? Voters approved it on Tuesday — and here’s how it can bring millions to New York City schools.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Sunset Park Prep Principal Jennifer Spalding, left, and Assistant Principal Lauren Scott, right, sit in the school auditorium, which was renovated with funds won through participatory budgeting.

When a city councilman told Laura Espinoza she could win thousands of dollars for her local schools through a process called participatory budgeting, the mother of four was skeptical it could be true.  

Then she thought about a recent experience volunteering in her daughter’s Sunset Park school, where she watched the deep disappointment of a boy who lost a class project on an outdated laptop that abruptly died.

Espinoza decided to put together a proposal, working with teachers and administrators, to fund technology upgrades for P.S. 24, as well as other schools in the district, including her son’s middle school at the time, Sunset Park Prep. She was amazed when her son’s assistant principal called to say their project had won a share of almost $700,000 to be divided among schools.

“I said, ‘Wow! That’s what we were able to do?’” Espinoza remembers.

More New York City parents could have similar experiences at their schools after voters on Tuesday passed a ballot referendum that calls for participatory budgeting to expand to every council district. It’s a concept many New Yorkers may never have heard of but allows everyday parents and even students to steer millions of dollars to their communities, including their schools.

As it stands now, council members choose to participate in the process, dedicating at least $1 million of their discretionary budgets for the public to spend. Residents gather ideas through a formal process, and the proposals are put to a vote. Children as young as 11, or those who are in at least the sixth grade, can cast ballots — as well as anyone else who lives in the district. Projects with the most votes get funded.

Participatory budgeting has been a lifeline for Sunset Park Prep, a school that serves mostly children from low-income families and is nestled on a few floors of a 100-year old building. Principal Jennifer Spalding estimates the process has pumped $1.8 million into her school over the past five years.

“There’s no single source of money I can think of that would replace that amount,” she said. “It’s allowed us to do projects I never thought would be possible.” 

Since her first foray into the process, Espinoza has dedicated countless hours to drum up ideas and voters to support projects for schools in her community. She’s not alone in council District 38, which is overseen by Councilman Carlos Menchaca. Spanning immigrant enclaves such as Sunset Park, Red Hook, and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the district last year tallied the most votes for participatory budgeting projects.

Many of those voters are school parents like Espinoza, who have turned to the process to fill resource gaps in their children’s classrooms — raising the kind of money that would be the envy of PTAs in more well-off schools but also challenging stereotypes about how involved immigrant parents and those of more modest means are in their neighborhood schools. Across the city, surveys show that participatory budget voters are more likely to be among the very poor, Hispanic, or come from communities who can’t participate in regular elections.  

“For me participatory budgeting, as a Hispanic, as an immigrant, as someone who feels like she doesn’t have a voice in this country, changed my life,” Espinoza said. “Though we can’t vote, though we can’t give money that families and professionals in Park Slope can, we can give something too — and it’s not a small thing. They are things that change the lives of children.”

Principal Jennifer Spalding speaks fondly of the century-old building that houses Sunset Park Prep middle school, which features long windows and soaring ceilings. But with age comes plenty of capital needs — and not always the kind that are a top priority in a city where the average school building was constructed in 1948.

Rich red curtains hang in the auditorium, where the sound system will soon get a makeover. The gym sports a shiny wood floor and freshly painted walls. In science classrooms, there are brand new cabinets and the sinks now work. A metal cart houses dozens of sleek MacBook Air laptops in a multimedia room stuffed with new tables and a smart board. All were paid for through participatory budgeting.

The process is especially important for schools like Spalding’s, where the parent organization is focused more on building community than raising dollars. The school relies on $3 tickets to dances to help fund field trips, while other nearby schools throw fancy galas and pull in hundreds of thousands of dollars. (A new city council bill will track those disparities by requiring the education department to collect and report PTA fundraising.)

For Spalding, the value of these badly-needed infusions goes beyond dollars. Students get their first taste of civic engagement by participating in voting during a school day. They feel a sense of empowerment when their school benefits. And they see the tangible benefits of their votes — and that they’re worth investing in.

“It adds so much value to our students’ lives,” she said. It sends a message that, “this is a place worth being, and a place of value.”

Not everyone supported expanding the process — at least not in the way the city ballot measure calls for. It creates a commission that would oversee voter initiatives, including a wider roll-out of participatory budgeting. A majority of members will be appointed by the mayor, prompting some to call the initiative an unnecessary expansion of mayoral power. Others have cautioned that participatory budgeting may not be as inclusive as it appears.

After seeing its power in his own district, Menchaca lent his support to the ballot initiative.

Before Menchaca was a city councilman, he worked in the Brooklyn borough president’s office managing capital projects. Though he saw many positive improvements being made, he was confounded by how opaque the process was, and how removed projects often seemed from what people really wanted. Then he became a city councilman.

“Participatory budgeting was like this ‘aha’ moment —  this eureka moment where it shifts the balance of power,” Menchaca said.

He made the process the centerpiece of how he does city business. When Menchaca meets a new constituent, he starts the conversation with participatory budgeting: “Do you have an idea about how to make your community better? Great,” he says.

His open invitation was met by organized and motivated parents who saw deep needs in local schools, but sometimes lacked the ability to give from their own pockets. Through countless public meetings, with steady translation services to reach the many Chinese and Spanish speakers in the district, parents were quickly won over.

“This was the first time parents had an idea for a concept and could fund it themselves,” Menchaca said.

Last year, more people voted for participatory budgeting projects than they did in the district’s primary election. Menchaca dedicated $2.5 million to the process last year — and often ends up spending most of his discretionary budget on other ideas that just missed the cut.

But the process is also a reminder of the scale of need that parents see in their neighborhood schools. It’s a challenge the district will have to overcome if a new school integration plan is to succeed. Approved in September, the plan changes the way students are admitted to middle schools in District 15, which overlaps Menchaca’s district. Advocates say the diversity push will have to go beyond attempts to simply move students around, and also to tackle inequities that continue to exist within individual schools.

While many in his district see participatory budgeting as a game-changer for schools, it can only go so far to fill resource gaps. The process only divvies up money for capital projects like building repairs and park renovations. It can’t pay for programming like an arts class or after-school robotics club or fund salaries for extra helpers in the classroom.

Those are the kinds of holes that Espinoza says will need to be filled if the district is to meet its integration goals. The city is dedicating $500,000 to implement the plan, part of which will go towards new resources for schools. Advocates also called for an analysis of available programming.

“We’ve been alleviated a little with these projects,” Espinoza said. “But more is needed”