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Crisis Response

Suicide Prevention and Schools

Prevention programs must receive the endorsement of administrators and boards of education.

It's unlikely that many American school administrators have heard of Barbara Mares. Even fewer realize that last year this Lenexa, Kan., woman nearly redefined the legal obligation of schools toward suicidal children in Kansas, and perhaps the nation.

In August 2006, a state court ordered the 29,000-student Shawnee Mission School District in Johnson County, Kan., to stand trial for alleged staff negligence in connection with the deaths of Mrs. Mares' sons. Jason Mares, 16, hanged himself in February 2003. Seven months later a distraught Justin Mares, 18, also hanged himself.

In June 2007, two weeks before the trial date, the district settled out of court with Mrs. Mares. The settlement terms remain unknown. But there exists little mystery about the implications for schools that ignore the longstanding national recommendations for school-based programs designed to prevent youth suicide.

Easy litigation targets include schools with a history of ignoring youth suicide and available prevention strategies.

More than two decades after the development of scientifically tested prevention technologies, it is estimated that fewer than 20 percent of the nation's 100,000 elementary and secondary schools have heeded the call. (Obtaining reliable data will require a monitoring system capable of identifying which schools have implemented prevention programs and which merely claim to have done so.)

Pushing for Change

While it is unclear how many schools assign management priority to suicide prevention, there is little doubt that all have been asked to do so. The National Association of School Psychologists has published "best practices" standards on prevention of suicide and other crises since the 1980s. In 2005, the American School Health Association publicly called for all schools to implement such standards. The intervening 25 years saw a host of similar pleas from public and private agencies.

Experts can recommend change, but only courts and legislators can require it. Though American courts traditionally have been reluctant to hold schools - or anyone else - responsible for suicides, some legal barriers are showing their age. Chief among these is the "intervening force" doctrine, which deems suicide an "unforeseeable" event for which no one but the deceased is responsible.

Unforeseeability remains the defense of choice in suicide-related lawsuits, but its days may be numbered. Suicidologists have eradicated the ancient notions about depression as an untreatable malignancy whose outcome is neither foreseeable nor preventable. It is now widely accepted that youth suicides can be reduced by the same techniques that have reduced fatalities involving other diseases: education, early detection, early treatment.

Early detection, according to a 2003 report by the Bush administration's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health, does not begin at home. "Schools," the commission wrote, "are where children spend most of each day."

Legal Targets Emerge

Due in part to the spate of school shootings and the finding that two-thirds of school shooters were suicidal, public sentiment for school prevention programs is evolving more quickly than judicial theory. Administrators can no longer assume that grieving parents will turn away in silent shame. Many now turn to attorneys. Easy litigation targets include schools with a history of ignoring youth suicide and available prevention strategies.

The well-informed school administrator should not be surprised. Since the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, American schools have accepted responsibility for the needs of children with physical and emotional disabilities. The historical record was not lost on the Mares court in 2007 - or on federal appellate courts 10 years earlier.

In Wyke v. Polk County (1997), the U.S. Court of Appeals held a Florida junior high school responsible for the death of Shawn Wyke, 13, who died by suicide at home after two attempts in school. Rather than notifying parents after the first attempts, the assistant principal invited the boy into his office-to read scripture.

The court reminded the school's defense team that the "intervening force" shield applies only to unforeseeable tragedies.

"We do not believe that a prudent person would have needed a crystal ball to see that Shawn needed help," the court ruled, "and that if he didn't get it soon, he might attempt suicide again."

Nor was Polk the first warning shot. In 1985, another federal appellate court held local police and school officials negligent for their handling of a 1982 incident that ended with the suicide of a 14-year-old student (Kelson v. City of Springfi eld, Oregon).

School management journals also have sounded the alarm. The American School Board Journal May 2001 cover story reviewed the legal risks for schools with regard to suicide. In 2005, the American School Health Association adopted a resolution demanding nationwide reform.

Taking a stand, of course, should not be confused with taking action. Resolutions and "awareness" campaigns are no substitute for written protocols and expertly designed staff training. The grim numbers-the 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey found that 8.4 percent of all high school students had attempted suicide-demonstrate past mistakes and current needs. But statistics alone do not teach parents and educators how to prevent youth suicide.

Too many communities wait for the first suicide-or the second or third-before asking the right questions: Where do we start? Who are the experts? Which prevention programs really work?

The answers and the experts are readily available. Instead of spinning wheels-or reinventing them-school staff should examine the evidence-based programs already in place around the nation and already saving lives. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the NASP's "best practice" textbooks are just two tools available to educators who understand that school-based prevention is no longer an option but an obligation.

What Schools Must Do

--Establish a suicide prevention task force. It should include school counselors and psychologists, public health officials, law enforcement officials, local government, and the judiciary. The task force's goals should not stop with "awareness" activities. It must expand community knowledge about modern prevention programs and identify barriers to change.

--Teach "lethality assessment" techniques to all school mental health professionals. Asking the right questions will allow them to distinguish the moderately depressed students from those at imminent risk of suicide.

--Adopt written staff protocols regarding notifi cation of parents and contacting referring agencies. Protocols should outline follow-up support options and stress the importance of staff teamwork.

--At least yearly, brief the board of education on modern prevention and early detection practices. These should include recent advances in depression screening for children. Distribute written briefings to school staff.

Scott Poland is a contributing writer for District Administration and prevention division director for the American Association of Suicidology. David Chartrand's upcoming book Angels in the Park examines how school and public health officials handled an epidemic of youth suicides in one Midwestern community.