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.”
Online 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.