This month 14 King County high schools will come together at the Forefront in the Schools Academy to pilot a comprehensive new approach to suicide prevention. Each school will send a team of administration, faculty, counseling and parent representatives to the two-day intensive training, and commit to meeting monthly with a Forefront liaison. Team members, in turn, will share what they’ve learned with their peers, so everyone in the school community can be aware and involved.
The academy is funded by the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation with hopes that the participating schools will serve as models and resources for other schools, and the academy itself will “help shape a program that can be implemented on a much larger scale,“ says Jolene McCaw.
It’s a “huge innovation” in youth suicide prevention to bring all the players from 14 schools together to learn and focus on everything from policies and training to linkage with the community, says Sue Eastgard, Forefront master trainer. The curriculum will revolve around what she calls the “Big Five” and will:
1. Help the schools develop policies and procedures for suicide prevention, as well as protocols for how to respond and follow up if there is a death;
2. Provide teachers and staff with suicide prevention awareness training;
3. Promote parent education in suicide prevention awareness;
4. Maintain or start a student curriculum in mental health and suicide prevention awareness;
5. Help identify and link to community resources for further assessment, care, treatment and intervention for students who are at risk.
Forefront and the foundation recruited a mix of public and private schools from across King County to pilot the program: Nathan Hale, Roosevelt, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Si, Woodinville, and Mercer Island, Bishop Blanchet, Forest Ridge of Sacred Heart, Seattle Academy of Arts & Sciences (SAAS), The Northwest School, Eastside Preparatory School, University Prep, Lakeside School and The Overlake School.
“We were very strategic in seeking diversity in geography, size, socio-economics and experience with suicides and suicide prevention,” Eastgard says. At least one school has done a great deal of prevention training, while others are just getting started. Some schools have experienced deaths, and some schools have not. Two schools have teen health centers, so Eastgard predicts, “we’ll be looking at how having on-site mental health counselors affects the response to suicide.”
Among the principals who’ll be attending is Roosevelt High School’s Brian Vance. He looks forward to the academy as a “unique opportunity to explore ways to help support students with the help of some really competent professionals who know this work and can share it with us. We had a tragedy last year where a student took her own life. It heightened our awareness and desire to know what else we can do to help all our students live healthy and productive lives. Our ultimate goal is to never go through what we went through last year ever again.”The academy schools likely will move much closer to meeting the requirements of HB1336, a 2013 law directing schools to develop identification-and-intervention plans and certain staff to receive additional training. While Vance welcomes this benefit, he’s even more excited about learning from other participants, and sharing the academy’s planning and training takeaways.
Sharing information is an academy cornerstone and the key to its sustainability. Forefront will provide the information, training and support for each team to develop a plan and training program to take back to their peers and students. “We’re attempting to build the internal capacity for each school to prevent and respond to suicidal behavior,” Eastgard says. “We will help schools develop the confidence, competence and comfort in doing trainings themselves”
This is a major departure from the traditional model of bringing in an expert for a one-off suicide prevention assembly or crisis follow-up. It’s comprehensive in the sense that it promotes awareness and prevention for everyone in the school community, but still needs the “upstream element of social-emotional learning—things like emotional regulation, conflict resolution, etc. to be truly complete,” Eastgard says. “If this year is successful, our dream is to add that element next year.”
Educators are ready, says Vance, who was a counselor before becoming a principal 15 years ago. “It’s become more relevant and obvious for educators to pay attention, and recognize … the impact that mental health has on everybody’s ability to learn.”
Ultimately McCaw’s vision is that “all schools in Washington state will make social and emotional health a priority by having strong emotional health and suicide prevention plans in place and abiding by them.” Right now, she says, “starting the dialogue in schools and having different audiences from school administrators to teachers to parents speaking the same language will be a big step forward.” — by Sue Lockett John
The Forefront in the Schools Academy training event will take place Sept. 22-23 at the University of Washington.