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.

food fight

As government shutdown drags on, New York City vows to protect school food program

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer served lunch at P.S./I.S. 180 in Harlem on the first day of the 2018-2019 school year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has warned that federal funding for school food could end in April if the government shutdown drags on.

The historic partial government shutdown could soon threaten New York City’s school food program, which serves about a million students breakfast and lunch.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city is drafting plans to keep school cafeterias open if the shutdown drags on, calling food for children “the number one thing we’re going to try to address.”

“In terms of drawing on some of our reserves, that would be a priority,” he said Thursday at a press conference to discuss the impact of the longest-ever shutdown.

The federal government provides about $43 million a month to pay for school meals in New York City, and right now the city has money on hand that would last until April.

School food is lifeline for many families. About 75 percent of New York City students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — to meet that threshold, a family of three would earn about $33,000 a year, said Liz Accles, executive director of Community Food Advocates, an organization that fought to make school lunch free for all city students.

“The real threat of [the meal programs] not being available lays bare some very real suffering,” Accles said. “The impact is pretty scary to think about.”

Other school districts are already beginning to feel the effects. One North Carolina school district recently announced it would scale-down its school lunches, cutting back on fresh produce and ice cream. Meanwhile, in Tennessee, one school district is hoping to recruit furloughed workers to fill in as substitute teachers.

The shutdown has dragged into its fourth week with no resolution in sight. President Trump and Congress are at an impasse over the president’s request for $5 billion to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

De Blasio’s media availability about the shutdown’s impact comes as he appears to be trying to bolster his national reputation. His State of the City speech last week focused on larger issues of income inequality and was followed up by appearances on CNN and “The View.”

De Blasio said it’s unclear whether the city would be eligible for reimbursement if it taps its own money to fund school food programs. And he warned that it would be impossible for the city to make up for all of the federal spending on programs that help poor families, which totals about $500 million a month.

“It is a dire situation, there is no other way to say it,” de Blasio said. “It will overwhelm us quickly.”

There are other ways the shutdown could be felt by students in the country’s largest school system, with funding for rental assistance and food benefits also in the balance. New York City is already struggling with a crisis in student homelessness: More than 100,000 lack permanent housing. Payments for food assistance are expected to stop in March, de Blasio said. An estimated 535,000 children under 18 years old benefit from that program.

Such out-of-school factors can have profound effects on student achievement. Cash benefits and food stamps have been linked to boosts in learning and students’ likelihood to stay in school. In New York City, the average family receives $230 in food assistance a month, according to city figures.

“The stress that the families are under, worrying about work and when they’re going to get paid, the children sense it. They hear it. They feel it,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the union that represents school administrators. “We see the impacts of that.”

chronically absent

One in four students are chronically absent in Tennessee’s state-run district. Here’s what educators are doing about it.

PHOTO: (Lance Murphey, Memphis Daily News File Photo)
About 25 percent of students at Humes Preparatory Academy Middle School were chronically absent last year, a drop of 6 percent from 2017.

More than one in four children in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district were chronically absent from school last year. Until recently, Armani Fleming, an eighth-grader in Memphis, risked being among them.

Armani struggled with attendance until a student support specialist with Communities in Schools, a Memphis nonprofit focused on wrap-around services for children, worked with him to identify and resolve barriers keeping him from class at Humes Middle School, apart of the Frayser Community Schools charter network.

“I realized Mr. B really cared about me, and he’s helped me make sure I come,” Armani said of the support specialist, Cadarius Buckingham. “He’s more of a counselor to me. I come and talk to him about everything, he’s the person I come to when I need help … and me coming to school has gotten a lot better.”

In the Achievement School District, getting kids to show up at school matters. Recent research has shown that when students have more “familiar faces” around them in class, they’re less likely to be chronically absent. Which is why nonprofits like Communities in Schools are sending staff members into local schools to connect with students like Armani.

Tennessee created the Achievement School District in 2012 to fix its lowest-performing schools by turning them over to charter organizations, but it has struggled to move the needle. Last year, 27.4 percent of the district’s students were chronically absent — representing a 2.4 percent drop from the previous year, but still alarmingly high. Now composed of 30 schools, the district faces higher rates of student mobility and poverty, contributing to its challenges with absenteeism.

Statewide, more than 13 percent of students are chronically absent, defined as having missed 10 percent of the school year, which is typically 18 or more days, for any reason (including excused absences and suspensions), but the average rate was significantly higher, 21 percent, for students who live in poverty.

The stakes are high for improving attendance numbers. Chronic absenteeism is now a major part of Tennessee schools are held accountable by the federal government. And research shows that children who are chronically absent from school are often academically below grade-level, more likely to drop out of school, and more frequently involved in the criminal justice system.

Communities in Schools is now in 19 Memphis schools, eight of them state-run. Those schools have seen, on average, a 5 percent reduction in chronic absenteeism, according to Michael Russom, the group’s director of operations and communications.

One school, Cornerstone Prep Denver Elementary, saw even more dramatic results: an 18 percent drop in chronic absenteeism year-over-year. Last year, just 13.7 percent of the school’s students were chronically absent.

What made the difference? Capstone Education Group, the charter school operator that runs Cornerstone schools, has a staff member dedicated to improving attendance and a partnership with Communities in Schools, said Drew Sippel, executive director of Capstone, which runs two state-run schools in addition to Denver that also had low absenteeism numbers.

“Whenever a parent expresses some concern related to regular attendance, [Patricia] Burns works to resolve impediments to consistent attendance,” Sippel said of the school’s Manager of Student Information and Business Systems. “These impediments range from transportation, homelessness, and inability to purchase school uniforms.”

Untreated health issues is sometimes another factor.

Denver Elementary’s principal also worked with Capstone staff to increase the number of meetings with parents, and therefore, to pinpoint the root causes of students’ absences.

Agape, Whitney Elementary, Memphis
PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Two of Agape’s staff members work with students on reading at Whitney Achievement Elementary School. The staff members, though employed by the Memphis nonprofit, are integrated into school life.

“There’s often an assumption or judgment with parents, ‘Why don’t you just make your kids go to school?’” said David Jordan, CEO of Agape, a Christian nonprofit that has also seen success in reducing chronic absences in Memphis schools. “We keep data on this, and it’s not that parents don’t care. There’s a lot of issues that can prevent students from making it to class.”

The program has grown every year from when it began in 2013 with 113 students. Now, more than 550 students are a part of Agape programs in 16 schools throughout Memphis — and all students they work with are now at school for at least 85 percent of the school year. This is just shy of the group’s goal for Agape students: to attend more than 90 percent of the year.

For its part, Communities in Schools hopes to expand onto additional Memphis campuses, but for now, the focus is the schools they are already serving. And they have added additional staff to some of the highest-needs schools.

One such school is Fairley High School, an Achievement District school run by the charter operator Green Dot Public Schools. There, about 56 percent of students were chronically absent last year, a 19 percent increase from 2017. Russom said they placed two full-time support specialists within Fairley earlier this school year.

Last year, absences spiked at Fairley amid a change of leadership at the school, and it took time for the new principal to gain students’ trust, said Zachary Samson, Green Dot’s area superintendent.

“That’s one huge piece of chronic absenteeism that’s hard to quantify,” Samson said. “It makes such a difference when a student walks in the door, and I as a school leader am able to greet them by name. I know their mom. It’s students feeling seen and appreciated.”

To improve attendance, Samson said his staff is working with Communities in Schools to create an incentive program for students, in which students who meet their attendance goals can attend school parties. He added that they are also focusing on their communication with parents, as many parents may not be aware their children are chronically absent or of the consequences.

Samson said he’s confident attendance can improve at Fairley because he’s seen it happen at another Green Dot school – Wooddale Middle School. About 15 percent of students were chronically absent at Wooddale last year, a drop of 3 percent from the previous school year.

Communities in Schools has a full-time staff member at Wooddale, and that has made an enormous difference, Samson said, noting: “For schools where budgets are very, very tight, having another passionate educator in your school whose big focus is to address attendance and behavior with students – that’s a huge help.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify that the state defines chronic absenteeism as missing 10 percent of attended school days, which is typically 18 or more days for the school year.

Correction: This story has been corrected to say that one in four students in the Achievement School District were chronically absent last school year, not one in three.