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With start of school looming, Colorado Springs-area school districts focus on suicide prevention

August 8, 2016 Updated: August 9, 2016 at 12:02 pm
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Discovery Canyon Campus High School (Photo courtesy: Academy District 20)

A suicide cluster - multiple self-inflicted deaths that happen close together in a certain location - occurred last school year among students at Discovery Canyon Campus.

Five students who attended the pre-K through 12th-grade campus in Academy School District 20 took their lives, starting around New Year's and continuing after classes ended in May. Some were members of the school's swim team. Several were described as popular and seemingly happy. Each left a gaping hole in the school community.

"We're a big school district, but when any student is in trouble, it affects us like a big family. No matter what kind of student crisis it is, we hold it close and feel very deeply about it," said D-20 spokeswoman Allison Cortez.

The often perplexing event is a concern at every school, and on the cusp of classes re-starting in many Colorado Springs-area districts, there's a renewed commitment to focus on prevention. From bringing in experts to hosting community forums to introducing new curriculum, officials say they're not ignoring the problem.

Two of the five suicides at Discovery Canyon this year happened in the same week in May. Another came after the funeral of one of students.

"Mental health issues are very complex, and probably the most complex are youth suicides," said Jim Smith, assistant superintendent for administrative services for D-20. "It starts with early conversation about mental health, looking at the whole child and recognizing that emotions matter, and learning what we can do to support each other."

Suicide clusters have been a trend across various Colorado Springs-area school districts for the past two academic years, according to the El Paso County Coroner's Office.

A total of 14 El Paso County youth, up to age 17, committed suicide in 2015, double the 2014 number of seven, statistics show. This year, there have been at least 10 youth suicide deaths.

D-20 has brought two national recognized psychologists to town to do presentations Monday and Tuesday, including a closed session Monday night for Discovery Canyon Campus parents.

Scott Poland, an expert on school crises, and Richard Lieberman, who specializes in how to minimize the risk of student suicide, also are providing training for administrators and staff district wide.

Self-harming behavior is just one of the topics they're covering, Cortez said. Depression, bullying, safe-driving habits, handling stress, social media, building resiliency and the role of parents in students' lives are on the agenda.

"We realize that if we just talk about the end result, that doesn't get us where we need to be," Cortez said. "This is an opportunity to equip folks with the tools and better understanding of mental health, so we're all working together as a community."

A presentation to a community coalition that includes police, fire and mental health personnel is scheduled for Tuesday.

New curriculum focusing on the signs of suicide will be taught in middle and high schools, Smith said, and preschool through 12th-graders will be introduced to a curriculum from Yale University about understanding emotions and feelings and triggers.

Smith said D-20 began focusing on suicide prevention four years ago and has continually improved its programming.

Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 didn't have any completed suicides last school year but had several the previous year. To be more proactive, the district received a $75,000 grant from the Colorado Springs Health Foundation. D-8 is using the money to develop a collaborative and strategic approach to prevention, said spokeswoman Christy McGee.

D-8 has hired a mental health professional to coordinate the project and lead a district-wide campaign on suicide prevention.

"Our district has always had a significant mental health support system in place with counselors, social workers and psychologists," McGee said. "This grant allows us to focus on one aspect to target suicide prevention in a meaningful way and develop conversations so kids feel like they are supported and have the tools they need."

D-8 experienced a 200 percent increase last school year over the previous year of assessments where students rated with a "high" or "imminent" threat of suicide, she said.

"We haven't had a spike, but we're recognizing there's an issue in our community and looking at how we can put in place prevention efforts," McGee said.

Widefield School District 3, which had two current students and a former student commit suicide last school year, again will offer a community night focusing on suicide prevention, said Superintendent Scott Campbell.

Experts in the field will do the presentation, he said, adding that a similar event held last school year drew 280 attendees.

"One suicide is too many," Campbell said. "We have a new curriculum that will be taught to all students this school year on recognizing the signs."

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