MONUMENT - The loud festive tunes blaring during passing periods was the first indication that finals week at Lewis-Palmer High School wasn't going to be like previous years.
Inside the school, a giant coloring book in the lunchroom provided a popular pit stop for students. Stations for making friendship bracelets, holiday cards and paper snowflakes, along with a generosity table for donating toys to benefit needy kids, also drew attention.
The school's 1,065 students also could perform tai chi or yoga movements during free time, grab a healthy snack or write a kind message to a mentor and hang it on a gratitude tree in the foyer.
But the "comfort animals" were the hands-down favorite part of a new program that launched this semester called "Sources of Strength."
"She's so cute," said junior Deanna Pruett, as she stroked Nikki, a Cairn terrier from the K9to5 National Therapy Dog Registry program. Deanna and other students stopped by a multipurpose room on Wednesday to pet, cuddle and admire Nikki.
"She's good at relieving stress," Deanna sighed.
Sources of Strength is a national program that seeks to prevent teen suicide, bullying and substance abuse by training student leaders and adults to "impact their world through the power of connection, hope, help and strength," according to its website.
The finals week perks were born out of the program.
"A lot of these tactics are a nice, easy distraction for kids and help us relax, make something beautiful and think good thoughts," freshman Kayli Ecklund said. "Even though we're complaining about finals, we still have a lot to be grateful for and can focus on our strengths, not our weaknesses."
Seventeen-year-old Katie Heaston said she loves that everything about the activities is "in the moment."
Sources of Strength encourages students to "reach out to other students and be more than a friend, beyond that initial interaction," she said.
About 100 students who were identified by teachers as teen leaders started learning their roles in October, and 50 are still actively involved. The program works to infuse positivity into the school environment in a manner that originates from students, not adults.
"Teachers know they don't make all the difference, and having the influence of the kids, with student leaders on their side, helps them reach the students," said Lewis-Palmer High sophomore Jack Snouwaert, a student leader for Sources of Strength.
"We can be there to support and help and direct students," said Kayli, also a student leader. "We can also say we think you need to see a counselor."
The program's tenets include mental health, family support, positive friends, generosity, healthy activities, mentors, spirituality and medical access.
In the past few years, teen suicides reached what health experts called an epidemic in El Paso County, doubling from seven in 2014 to 14 in 2015, for children under age 18.
But stepped up awareness and prevention events could be helping.
Last year ended with 15 deaths by suicide under age 18 in El Paso County.
Officials say it's too early to definitively say the trend is reversing, but this year's number has dropped to 13.
While the tragedies spanned the Pikes Peak region's 17 public school districts, many students were from the county's two northern-most districts, D-38 in Monument and Academy D-20, both academically high-performing districts.
The Ascent Church's Woodmoor campus recently held a 5K run, which raised enough money for four schools, including Lewis-Palmer High, each to receive $5,000, to benefit such prevention programs.
"It's awesome," said the pastor's daughter, Lewis-Palmer High senior Juliette Hayes, of the program. "I really like that our school has taken this upon themselves."