Editor’s note: This story is part of Breaking the Silence, a week-long effort by news organizations across Oregon to change the way we talk about the public health crisis of death by suicide. It contains descriptions of suicide and may not be suitable for all readers. If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call for help now. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service answered by trained staff 24 hours per day, every day. The number is 1-800-273-8255. Or text 273TALK to 839863.
The mental health of students – and the risk of suicide – led Oregon lawmakers to pass a slew of legislation this year. Students can take days off for their mental health, and a few school districts will receive money to plan school-based health centers.
But the Oregon law most closely tied to the risk of suicide – called "Adi's Act" – won't take effect until next year. The 2019 law is named for a transgender student who died by suicide, and it requires school districts to create plans to prevent student suicide.
In a message to the Senate Education Committee, Adi’s parents told lawmakers the bill shows all children should be valued.
“Adi’s Act will give stronger, more consistent policy to educate teachers, administrators and school staff on how to effectively respond to our kids at-risk for suicide,” the testimony reads.
The law passed, requiring district-wide plans that outline suicide prevention procedures, training plans for school employees, and methods to address the needs of high-risk groups, including LGBTQ students.
But school districts don’t need to have a plan in place until the 2020-2021 school year.
Several Districts Already Have A Plan
The Salem school community was shocked last year after six Salem-Keizer students and one staff member died by suicide.
Afterwards, the community wanted to talk about the deaths, leading to a series of conversations that will continue again this year. The district also added staff: one counselor at each traditional high school.
Salem-Keizer launched a five-year plan to train all staff on a program aimed at identifying and responding to suicide warning signs, called "Question, Persuade, Refer." It's aimed to involve staff inside and outside of classrooms, even outside of school buildings, across Oregon's second-largest district. The district's director of community relations Lillian Govus says bus drivers received the training last week.
“They’re the first ones to see our students in the morning and they’re the last one to see them in the afternoon, so helping empower them with the skills is critical," Govus said.
Govus says Adi’s Act will help Salem-Keizer make sure its suicide prevention plans align with the different communities the district serves.
A rural district right outside of Salem has a plan too.
Erica Gordon, the student services director for the Mt. Angel School District, used a guide from substance abuse and suicide prevention nonprofit, Lines for Life and the Willamette Educational Service District to develop a prevention policy.
Gordon started with several model policies from around the country to piece together Mt. Angel's policy.
For districts creating a plan, Gordon has some advice.
She suggests districts, especially smaller ones, partner with local health and community organizations for help, such as Lines for Life, and staff at the regional ESD and county government.
“As a small district we really struggle with building capacity within our own district to execute those things,” Gordon said.
Staci Fisher is a counselor at South Medford High School. But last school year, as a counselor in the Bend-La Pine Schools, she testified in support of the bill. But she requested that districts give counselors time and resources to create prevention curriculum and provide follow-up.
In South Medford, Fisher has about 500 students assigned to her. She’s hopeful new legislation will provide more resources, pointing out that there’s a domino effect facing resource-strapped counselors: When one student is in crisis, that student takes priority and it can be harder to get other parts of the job done.
“We only work so many days out of the year, but there’s so much that has to be done in that certain amount of time,” said Fisher.
“This law cannot be half-assed,” Fisher emphasized, arguing that having a plan is not enough, if it’s not well thought-out. “A school district cannot really say, ‘Oh we wrote it,’ but not have it be best practice.”
Gordon also stressed the need for support with resources, not just in creating a plan, but in following it.
“Suicide prevention is so much more than a plan,” Gordon said. “It is so much more than a policy.”
Cautionary Tale From A State Six Years Into A Suicide Planning Mandate
Until now, Oregon was one of only three states in the country without a requirement for these plans.
But Washington passed a similar law back in 2013.
The state shared a model suicide prevention policy for districts to use in developing their own prevention plans. But in the six years since is passed, there has been little to no state funding to help school districts implement prevention plans – or for state officials to know if districts have protocols at all.
Some schools have received funding for plans by finding money on their own. The University of Washington program Forefront has helped several schools develop suicide prevention plans.
Other schools have used federal money to build up prevention efforts, including Battle Ground Public Schools.
The southwest Washington district was one of three in the state to receive funding from a Project AWARE grant offered through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Battle Ground's director of social-emotional learning Sandy Mathewson says without that funding, creating and implementing the district's suicide plan would've been difficult.
“Funding has to follow the initiatives or there’s nobody to do the work,” Mathewson said.
According to the Oregon Department of Education, there is no dedicated funding to implement Adi’s Act.
ODE’s Jeremy Wells says districts will use funds from a federal grant dedicated to helping school districts develop emergency operation plans. But that funding source can also be tapped for transportation or earthquake safety, not just plans related to suicide prevention.
Wells says the law does not necessarily need funding to create plans. ODE will work with the state’s education service districts to help rollout information and support schools. Other support is expected from suicide prevention nonprofits around the state.
Mathewson, from Battle Ground, says having funding helps keep the plan from landing on one or two people who already have daily responsibilities.
“School counselors have a huge job,” Mathewson said. “They can be responsive because they know students, but this cannot be heaped on the shoulders of school counselors.”
ODE will also share examples of policies from school districts of different sizes. ODE is currently in the process of creating rules for the legislation.
Oregon schools may also receive help from the Oregon Health Authority.
Suicide As A Public Health Crisis
With Adi’s Act, OHA will support school districts by providing plan examples, national recommendations, and a menu of training opportunities for students, staff and community members. OHA plans to roll those out by spring 2020.
OHA is accepting grant proposals until Sept. 20 from school districts seeking school-based health services, seen as a potentially critical resource for students in mental health crisis. OHA will give up to 12 school districts or education service districts funds to address health needs for students.
OHA also has $10 million for school-based mental health in support of suicide prevention activities.
That's in addition to OHA's finally having funding for its own Youth Suicide Intervention and Prevention Plan. Although the five-year plan was established in 2016, this is the first time the effort has received dedicated funding. The budget also allows OHA to hire a second youth suicide prevention coordinator, and an adult coordinator to start working on an Adult Suicide Prevention Plan.