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District moves toward robust suicide approach

The Rapid City Journal - 11/12/2017

Three suicides among three male students between July and September caught school officials flatfooted.

"We were dealing with it reactively," said Matt Seebaum, assistant superintendent for educational services at Rapid City Area Schools.

Was it more than a chance cluster? Suicide among youth can spark a contagion, a me-too effect, leading others to take their lives. School officials wanted especially to avoid inspiring a contagion.

The district had policies in place, Seebaum said, but the incidents from summer and fall revealed holes and inconsistencies.

"We did tighten things quickly," he said. One existing policy required written reports on every interaction involving a concern for suicide. This was extended so top administrators became better aware of ongoing problems.

From the start of the school year through Nov. 9, Seebaum said, the district received 77 reports of suicide concern. Of those, 18 involved elementary school students, 14 involved middle school students, and 45 involved high school students. Follow-up showed the degree of risk to each student ranged widely. Responses to the most serious were scaled up to include law enforcement and mental health practitioners.

The numbers should concern everyone, but they won't surprise people working with suicide. South Dakota has a high suicide rate, especially among youth, and the rates have risen over the last two decades. South Dakota lies in the western suicide belt - a string of sparsely populated states running north to south where there is near universal access to guns. Guns may not increase intent, but they are designed to kill.

Meanwhile, the suicide rate among South Dakota'sNative Americans is nearly double that of whites. About one fifth of Rapid City students are Native American, Seebaum noted, and there is a lot of crossover with the state's reservations, with a lot of opportunity for contagion.

As bad as that is, the reality is probably worse. The statistics show only what agencies have been able to count, Seebaum noted. "We do not have a complete data set," he said.

In September, amid the district's concerns of a me-too contagion, RCAS reached out to national school suicide experts Scott Poland and Richard Lieberman. The pair addressed the recent contagion at Academy 20 schools near Colorado Springs, Colo., where suicides occurred within one year, including four within four weeks.

Their insights helped, Seebaum said, but RCAS officials quickly realized the district could do more to intervene and prevent suicide.

"We can't predict the future, but we can anticipate," he said. "What we have works for now, but what we can have can be so much better."

While the focus is on a better plan for the district, RCAS hopes it can spark a collaborative community approach to better address suicide en whole. Such an effort would blur the lines between mental health, law enforcement, health care, and the public.

"We can close some loops," Seebaum said. RCAS can bring nearly all of the players together for a discussion.

One example of that is the second community meeting on suicide that RCAS will host at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Western Dakota Tech Events Center. More meetings are planned throughout the school year as the district prepare for the launch of its more comprehensive suicide program in fall.

Among the insights Poland and Lieberman shared was an appreciation of suicide's seasonal trends and danger points.

For students, the winter holiday season attends more suicides but so does spring, a time when students realize their school year was not as successful as they had hoped.

A deeper dive into the 77 suicide reports issued so far also points to concerns around fifth grade (nine reports) and ninth grade (22). Transitions between elementary, middle school and high school can be difficult for those who do not feel prepared.

The district's new approach to suicide will involve more training about suicide, expanded awareness of warning signs, and a culture of reporting.

Poland and Lieberman tell them suicide reports will rise, but attempts and completions will decline. The key word is decline rather than prevent.

The district's new approach will also define a better path for recovery once a student suicide occurs.


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