York County schools train staff in suicide prevention


Last year, 10 young people under the age of 25 committed suicide in York County.

This year that number has already reached seven, according to a local suicide prevention group.

Those numbers, according to Cindy Richards, chairwoman of the York County Suicide Prevention Coalition, are heartbreaking.

"We can't save everyone, but maybe we can save more than we are now," she said.

One step in the right direction is teachers statewide being trained in warning signs, she said.

Mandate: Former Gov. Tom Corbett last year signed Act 71, making Pennsylvania the sixth state to mandate suicide prevention training in its schools.

The law, which goes into effect for the 2015-16 school year, requires that schools "adopt a youth suicide awareness and prevention policy; and provide ongoing professional development in youth suicide awareness and prevention for professional educators in buildings serving students in grades 6-12."

It additionally will allow schools to incorporate youth suicide awareness and prevention into their curriculum.

The York City and Red Lion school boards this week adopted new policies to facilitate the law's requirements. Richards said she has participated in trainings with more than nine different districts and several private schools and emphasized the importance of the required four-hour sessions.

"Both students and adults will turn to people that they feel closest to ... and if they turn to someone who doesn't understand or doesn't know the warning signs, it's going to go right over their heads and they may lose someone," Richards said. "If you know the warning signs, you may not understand their situation, but you can see these signs and you may be able to save someone's life — now you can't save everyone, but you'll be able to do everything in your power to help them."

Districtwide: While the law only requires those who teach grades six to 12 be trained, Red Lion School District decided to train its entire staff.

"York County has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation," Superintendent Scott Deisley said. "In previous training we saw kids as young as 10 years old completing suicide, so we felt that our teachers at all levels should be equipped and able to identify those situations."

Richards said she hopes other districts will take a similar approach as they get more comfortable in their programs.

"No one is immune to suicide," Richards said. "Children who die in suicides have siblings in all grades, parents who take their lives have children in all grades. Everyone could benefit from this training."

Training and programs: Last October, the majority of the districts rolled out an Aevidum program, a student-run organization intended to create a positive mental health environment in schools. The word "aevidum" was created by students as a pledge of support and is generally defined to mean "I've got your back."

"Aevidum is all about teaching the kids the warning signs; it's all about anti-bullying and building that positive environment," Richards said. "The kickoff at each school is something the entire student body takes part in; it's pretty much entirely student run. They're gearing up and getting ready for their kickoff events this year too."

The state Department of Education has a outlined a model for training and for districts looking to educate their community. Topics of focus include: debunking myths, risk factors vs. warning signs, reviewing school policy, how to respond as educators and safe methods of communication. The Department of Education also recommends training focus on points of intervention, methods and procedures for community outreach and support, and how to cope after working with an at-risk child.

Richards has spoken at several trainings and hopes that more districts will reach out. She offered to facilitate discussions and offer her insight at no cost.

"A lot of districts that haven't thought about this in the past are thinking of it now," Richards said. "As of right now, we've got this up and running in York County."

— Reach Jessica Schladebeck at jschladebeck@yorkdispatch.com.