Fourteen high schools from across King County are moving ahead with Forefront in the Schools to create suicide safer communities for their students. Cohort school teams composed of administrators, counselors, teachers and parent representatives spent a day at the University of Washington last month to share what they learned last year and prepare for their next steps.
The two-year program, funded by the Jolene McCaw Family Foundation, takes a sustainable, all-inclusive approach in which everyone has a role in suicide prevention. In addition to its team-based approach and evidence-based protocols, the program emphasizes peer power to make suicide prevention and behavioral health a permanent part of the school landscape, says Sue Eastgard, interim director of training and school programs at Forefront.
Rather than relying only on the counselors or on one-off presentations, this model prepares parents to teach parents and teachers to teach teachers how to detect and respond to signs of suicide risk. This year key groups of students also will be trained to lead their peers through Forefront’s LEARN suicide prevention steps.
Administrators and counselors also are building support networks with peers in their cohort schools. These connections help break down the sense of isolation many schools feel around this topic, said Matt Levinson, University Prep head of school. He also appreciates having access to Forefront’s expertise in reviewing internal systems to “make sure we are doing the best we can do for our students.”
As part of last year’s groundwork, Forefront liaisons worked with each school to develop evidence-based protocols for suicide prevention and for dealing with the aftermath if a suicide occurs. Impressed by the schools’ efforts, Jolene McCaw said, “It is extremely rewarding to hear the many stories about how helpful this program has been. I am especially happy to see the interaction and support among different schools within the cohort and hope to see even more as the program continues.”
Amy Berner-Hays, dean of residential life at The Northwest School, and her colleagues experienced that support last spring when a student died by suicide. Cohort schools sent counselors, condolence notes and reassurance that Northwest was not grieving alone. Forefront staff liaisons were on the spot to offer consultation and advice, and to reassure the community the postvention protocols were being handled appropriately.
It helped to have been working with Forefront all year and have a research-based crisis plan already in place, Berner-Hays said. “Fundamentally our approach was that it was an event that had a community-wide impact and the entire community needed to be mindful of that in our response.” Ten years ago things were handled very differently, she recalled. “Schools tended to handle suicides very privately. This new model for suicide response felt much healthier. We were sharing information and resources to take care of all of our kids and families.”
Year two in the program focuses on social emotional learning, which fits well with the launch of an advisory program that Northwest has been working on. “We will also be continuing on with our peer-to-peer student, teacher and parent trainings,” said Berner-Hays.
Matt Levinson is pleased with U Prep’s progress at developing a culture of collaboration and a sense of community informed by up-to-date research through Forefront in the Schools. “Our ability to talk as a school team has grown more intentional. The questions we are asking are a little sharper and revealing to help us understand our students.
“We are grateful that Forefront and the University of Washington are doing this work.”
Meet Forefront in the Schools’ new staff members
Nate Baum joins Forefront in the Schools as a program coordinator and the liaison to six schools. He also will assume responsibility for data collection and analysis of LEARN training surveys—an essential step in honing and expanding the program. Nate has worked with and on behalf of youth for the past 10 years, most recently training and providing technical assistance for youth development and mentoring programs across Massachusetts. Prior to that he served at Samaritans Inc., a suicide prevention organization, preparing young people to field calls from peers in the midst of a crisis and at risk for suicide. He also has taught middle school science and environmental education. He dates his passion for suicide prevention back to his high school days as a teen volunteer on a peer-to-peer helpline, and says he’s thrilled to be working with area high schools across King county.
Elaine Walsh, PhD, RN, has been associated with Forefront since its inception, first on its planning team and subsequently as affiliated faculty. She joins the staff as a liaison to four schools. A UW Associate Professor and Vice Chair for Education in the School of Nursing’s Department of Psychosocial and Community Health, Elaine is certified as a child/adolescent psychiatric-mental health clinical nurse specialist. She has experience working with hospitals, schools, and community-based organizations on suicide prevention. Her research interests include prevention of suicide and co-occurring behaviors, program evaluation, and translation of research interventions to community-based settings. Elaine recently evaluated face-to-face and online training modules for Forefront’s federal Garret Lee Smith grant to implement a suicide prevention initiative at the UW. She is eager to collaborate with high school administrators, teachers, counselors, parents and students on Forefront’s comprehensive approach to suicide prevention. She said, “The energy and commitment displayed by participating schools is impressive. I look forward to supporting this important work.”