Crisis teams shift focus to prevention

Training sheds light on halting suicide among youths in Howard schools


October 27, 2004|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When the Howard County school system's crisis intervention teams were put in place four years ago, the goal was to have countywide procedures for crises ranging from the death of a student to terrorism and natural disasters.

"Our focus was very procedural in terms of step by step, `When a crisis occurs, here's what we're going to do,' " said Ivan Croft, chairman of the county schools' cluster crisis intervention teams.

This month, the focus here and in other Maryland schools has been on suicide prevention. It is Youth Suicide Prevention Month in Maryland, and it marks the beginning of a yearlong focus on suicide prevention in Howard County.

About 250 county school staff members were trained over the past week. In one session, high school teams and half of the county's elementary schools' staff attended separate classes. In another, middle school and remaining elementary school staff members received training at the Faulkner Ridge staff development center in Columbia.

"The theme that we're taking with this training is acknowledging that all teams have something in place for suicide prevention," said Croft. "We're acknowledging that suicide prevention is more than just a `friends tell' initiative."

Every public school in Howard County has a crisis intervention team. Members include school psychologists, counselors and other student services staff members - pupil personnel workers and nurses. An administrator, usually the principal, is also on the team.

Four cluster crisis intervention teams, broken into geographical zones, support the school teams.

When a traumatic event, such as the death of a student, occurs, the crisis intervention team goes to work. School team members first "assess the degree of the impact of the crisis," Croft said. "If they determine that the resources needed are more than the resources they have available, they would call in the cluster team."

Cluster support in the form of additional counselors, psychologists and nurses are available to the school. "These are staff that are trained in doing direct crisis intervention ... working through the response with families, handling parent questions, answering tough questions about loss," said Croft.

As the teams began to feel comfortable with the countywide procedures, they told Croft, "We know what to do when there's a crisis. Let's focus on prevention," he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers people younger than 24 to be in a youth-suicide category. Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among those ages 15 to 24 in the United States.

During the past two calendar years, five confirmed suicides have occurred among Howard County students - three in high school and two in middle school.

"We know that there are a number of risk factors for suicide ... academic and social stressors" are among them, Croft said. "Suicide prevention in turn means developing protective factors ... so that kids are empowered and enabled to deal with" the problems they face.

At a training session Monday, Croft recommended that elementary-level crisis intervention teams train their teachers to recognize warning signs of suicide because teachers are "the first line of defense in our classroom." He said that adults at a school could help by "preparing for these cases by developing a rapport and an approachability [with students] ... so that when kids are at risk they feel comfortable telling us."

J.T. Ridgely, school psychologist at Bryant Woods Elementary, asked the 12 crisis intervention teams present to identify how they support the goal of suicide prevention. "At Bryant Woods, we don't have anything specifically targeted at suicidal behaviors," he said, but the school does have programs that support prevention. One of these is a "no put-downs" curriculum adapted for each grade level.

Guilford Elementary's principal, Genee Varlack, said, "We do a lot of preventive on the elementary end."

Guilford has a program under which staff members "adopt" a pupil: "Targeting a child at risk anonymously. We know who the children are. We know who's in need. Anonymously, I might send notes to that child," Varlack said. "Just letting that child know that someone is watching and someone does care."

Arlene Harrison, Waterloo Elementary's principal, said that learning about suicide prevention is "important for all children because we're asking all children to be there for each other. The kids need to know what to do if they have a friend" talking about suicide.

"This is hopefully a great first step or continuing step for some schools, but it's going to be an ongoing process," Croft said.

Information: American Association of Suicidology,; or National Association of School Psychologists, www.naspon The Maryland Youth Crisis Hotline is 800-422-0009.

At risk for suicide

The following are warning signs of possible suicidal intent:

Threats to take one's life.

Drawings or writings about one's death.

High-risk behaviors that endanger one's life.

Drastic changes in appearance; withdrawal from family or friends.

Increased use of drugs or alcohol.

Changes in eating or sleeping habits.

Previous suicidal gestures or attempts.

Giving away prized possessions; making a will or planning one's funeral.

Poor communication about one's needs.

From "Youth Suicide Prevention in the Family," a pamphlet published by the Office of Special Education and Student Services, Howard County public school system.

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