M-W holds community informational meeting on sudden child death

| 22 Feb 2012 | 04:42

    Smaller community forums and student assemblies to follow, By Nancy Kriz CENTRAL VALLEY - The Monroe-Woodbury School District is continuing to follow the guidance of mental health professionals following last night’s community informational meeting on sudden child death. The meeting, sponsored by the district and the Monroe-Woodbury PTA Council, was held in response to the recent and unexpected deaths of two high school students. Melanie Puorto, director of the New York State Office of Mental Health’s Suicide Prevention Initiative, led the meeting. She has consulted throughout New York State and is a nationally recognized expert in the area of suicide prevention. At a meeting Tuesday afternoon with PTA Council representatives, High School Principal David Bernsley told them this informational meeting was just the beginning of long-term, continuous programs and eventual community forums designed to offer district families and interested community members an opportunity to talk about recent tragic events as well as plans for the future.

    These tragedies have involved our high school students. But it’s not a high school issue. This is a community issue. We have to take the lead in this, and we understand this.” David Bernsley, Monroe-Woodbury High School principal

    Information first The meeting on Thursday evening was purposely designed as informational only. Questions from the audience were not allowed. The reason for this, Bernsley said, is because the district is continuing to follow the guidance and recommendations of the regional mental health task force it has been working with since the first student death - composed of experts in suicide awareness and prevention - which is saying the right course of action is to first have an initial gathering which provides only information, including: Basic facts, warning signs, how to react to warning signs and how to speak to those affected. Experts say this allows for the rawness of recent events to settle, particularly because people are understandably emotional, according to Bernsley. “We’re doing what the professionals in this field tell us,” he added. “No knee jerk reactions. Nothing to make anything worse.” Clergy Association Shortly thereafter, and in conjunction with the Monroe Clergy Association, community forums will be held throughout the district, allowing participants to gather in smaller groups where questions and answers can be addressed. Bernsley expects to add community and civic groups and organizations to that mix. “The whole idea is to create an intimate setting where people are comfortable and relaxed and are not afraid to express themselves or their feelings,” he said. “We’re going to be in Monroe, in Highland Mills, in Central Valley, in Harriman … we’re going to be throughout the entire community.” Bernsley said the high school student body has asked for assemblies and he has explained to them the rationale for not immediately holding such gatherings. “Once I explained it, they certainly understood the rationale,” he said. “They got it.” Tragedy unifies Monroe-Woodbury High School Student Council President Shang Wang agreed. “I think the student body obviously wanted a larger assembly,” he said. “But I think they do understand that the mental health professionals obviously lead (the plan). They also understand Administration is trying to help us. They understand that right now it’s not advisable to hold an assembly as they’d like to.” Wang also said this tragedy has unified the school, noting how students rallied to show their displeasure over certain media coverage. “This is obviously a tragedy,” said Wang. “The fact that it’s happened twice is awful. The way the school has reached out has generally been good. Everyone has stuck together. There’s a real sense of unity … it’s bittersweet in how it’s united us. “If students see someone in need of help, they’ll reach out to help them,” Wang added. “That just shows the character of this school. This is a tough time, but we’ll stay strong as a community and as a student body.” Bernsley remained committed to being transparent about district plans. “There is a lot of planning going on,” he said. “The experts are telling us to be well-thought out and methodical. To put things out there for the sake of putting things out there can just make things worse.” However, in the interim, and with the consent of mental health professionals, the high school began offering students an opportunity to participate in small group discussions last Monday. School officials continue to offer students an opportunity to come to assigned rooms alone, with a friend, or with a group of friends to express feelings, and to speak openly about recent events with a counselor. 'Come June, we won’t forget’ Bernsley asked for the community’s continued cooperation and understanding. “I know this is frustrating to many people,” said Bernsley. “They want us to do something right away, and all the experts are saying, 'Take it step by step.’ These tragedies have involved our high school students. But it’s not a high school issue, this is a community issue. We have to take the lead in this, and we understand this.” Bernsley said the district has a long-term commitment to addressing the issue of suicide awareness and education. “We’ll be talking about three elements: prevention, intervention and postvention,” said Bernsley. “I promise you this. There will be a sustained approach and we will sustain it. This has to be a well-thought out process. Come June, we can’t forget about this and we won’t forget about this.”

    Some postvention advice for schools

    Editor’s note: Officials at the Monroe-Woodbury School District have promised transparency to the community as they continue to address the issue of suicide prevention and awareness. This is one of the documents distributed to members of the Monroe-Woodbury PTA Council in preparation for Thursday night’s informational meeting on sudden child death. This information has only been edited to exclude the names and personal contact information of resource professionals. 1. Advise school that to stay alert for the effects on their school for a while. 2. In a regular high school about 10 to 15 percent of the population has attempted or considered suicide in the past. This increases the likelihood that students who have contemplated might attempt and that vulnerable students who are affected may start to contemplate suicide. 3. All school personnel and parents need to know the following about students at risk for complicated grief or for imitative behavior: • They may believe that they promoted the suicide through involvement in a pact, providing the means, or encouraging the suicide; • Believe their mistreatment of the victim contributed to the suicide; • Failed to recognize the intent (did not take the threat seriously or missed obvious warning signs); • Had a close relationship with victim; identify with suicide victim (view as a role model or see parallel life circumstances); • Have a history of prior suicidal behavior or mental health problems such as depression; • Experienced a previous traumatic or significant loss; • Believe they may have caused the suicide because they broke up with the victim. Other students who may be at risk include: • siblings of deceased • close friends of the deceased • students on teams, in clubs or activities with the deceased • friends of siblings of the deceased • enemies of the deceased, (bullies) • “vulnerable” students (drug/alcohol problems, emotional problems, previous suicidal thoughts and /or attempts) • students preoccupied with death or suicide • students identified by peers, faculty or parents • students who self-identify as having thoughts of suicide 4 . All school staff should learn what to look for and what to do. 5. Someone needs to call grief counseling resources in the community and/or mental health services, and create a list of resources that specialize in working on grief or with teens and/or trauma and can make themselves available for appointments in 24 to 48 hours. 6 . If grief support groups are done at school, keep them small and homogeneous. 7 . Use care when choosing memorial activities. Activities need to be aimed at meeting the grief needs of students, but care must be taken not to have suicide elevate a student’s status. All student deaths should be treated equally. 8 If doing classroom presentations, be careful that students aren’t surprised and students who have been personally affected are identified ahead of time. Don’t use testimonials at all. The message must be that students with thoughts of suicide need help from adults. We’ll help you get to people who can help. 9. The National Emergency Assistance Team of the National Association of School Psychologists can provide training for school counselors and school crisis teams in risk assessment, documentation, crisis management and follow up care. Visit: www.monkeysee.com/play/2890-what-factors-make-a-child-high-risk-for-suicide. ASIST - Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training is also recognized as a best practice for suicide intervention 10. A task force ( i.e. law enforcement, school superintendents and administrators, mental health clinic, other children’s health service providers, hospital emergency room professionals, and crisis services) can develop a flow chart for notifications with any attempt or completion. This can help your crisis managers track trends and make sure kids get connected up to care and people at school know they were in the Emergency Department etc. 11. Safe and drug-free schools money is available the U.S. Department of Education. 12 - Attend to the needs of counselors and teachers, they can be affected too. They need help. 13 - Social network sites can also be monitored. Information courtesy of the Monroe-Woodbury School District

    Monroe-Woodbury school officials are shaping their response to the recent deaths of two students on the advice from a variety of local, state and national experts. A sampling of that advice (“Some Postvention Advice for Schools”) can be found online at www.thephoto-news.com and www.facebook.com/pages/The-Photo-News/192840700728899.