With suicidal ideation high in Jeffco, groups launch community trainings

District adopts new strategies following 10 tragedies since 2018


Before attending a community QPR Training (Question, Persuade, Refer Training), former educator Cecelia Lange would never have considered directly asking if an individual was feeling suicidal, she said.

“I was always under the impression that if you mention it, it becomes a reality; it becomes something the individual could do,” said Lange, an Arvada resident. But at the training, “we learned you can directly approach a person and say, `are you considering this?’ I found it really helpful.”

The training Lange attended occurred Dec. 7 at Westerra Credit Union in Lakewood. Organized by the Jeffco PTA, the training allowed community members to attend an hour-and-a-half-long QPR instructional session.

QPR emphasizes suicide prevention strategies focused on recognizing warning signs, speaking to individuals directly about mental health and referring individuals to care and support facilities.

The method has been adopted not only by the PTA, but also by the district as a whole. In 2019, Jeffco Public Schools began training all of its roughly 14,000 employees in QPR, with plans to run updated trainings every two years.

Much like the PTA, the district is also offering QPR trainings for parents and community members.

“Originally, this was supposed to happen in a few years, but we really want to be responsive to our community’s needs now,” said district suicide prevention coordinator Michelle Gonzales.

The district started working on its up-to-date, comprehensive suicide prevention model in February, following the November 2018 approval of ballot measure 5A.

The measure allocated additional funds to suicide prevention work, Gonzales said. “Our voters thought it was worthy of funding, and they invested,” she said.

An increasing need

Jeffco’s heightened focus on suicide prevention strategies comes a time when the strategies are more pertinent than ever before.

Four Jefferson County students have died by suicide since the start of the 2019 school year, with the most recent occurring in October. Six students died by suicide the previous year.

In the first semester of the 2019-2020 school year, the district had received 1,184 reports of students experiencing suicidal thoughts, according to Dec. 13 data.

At a community meeting in December, Superintendent Jason Glass told community members that this data reflects “record numbers” of students struggling with suicidal thoughts in Jeffco; however, it also shows that the district has “much better mechanisms allowing people to report in place.”

MORE: District considers early survey results about student experiences

Typically, reports come from students self-reporting their own risk, Gonzales said; 45% of the reports were self-reports, 22% came from teachers, 18% came from classmates and 15% came from other sources.

Meanwhile, Lange too said she sees the need in her everyday life; having attended the training on a Saturday, by the following Wednesday, “I had already used one of the techniques we learned,” she said.

A range of causes

Previously, the district’s suicide prevention programming included only Sources of Strength, a peer-led program in 25 schools. The program helps students build support networks, engage in healthy activities and learn to help friends who are struggling.

The district’s updated approach incorporates staff and community QPR trainings, continues Sources of Strength and updates the process for creating support plans and re-entry plans for at-risk students, Gonzales said.

As part of the update, Jeffco has also hired more Social Emotional Learning (SEL) specialists, or mental health professionals to coordinate SEL instruction and support for students. Currently, the district has 96 SELs in its 117 schools, Gonzales said.

New this year, elementary schools each hired a half-time SEL; middle schools already had full-time SELs, and high schools have one designated SEL for each articulation area, she said.

Elementary schools have also adopted the Second Step Curriculum, which promotes bullying prevention, she said.

Bullying is the fifth most common stressor for students experiencing mental health problems, according to district data. Data was collected by asking students to name the activating events of their mental health struggles, with students able to name more than one. As of Dec. 13, the most common sources of stress for students in the district included family problems, conflict with peers and anxiety about school work, with 40% or more of students citing each as a stressor. Bullying was a major source of negative mental health for 17% of student respondants.

Students also named positive mental health factors that made them feel safe, and 85% cited family support. Positive freinds and having mentors or trusted adults in their life were also cited by a majority.

“Knowing families are an integral part of emotional wellness, we really need to be partnering with parents and the greater community,” Gonzales said.

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And through the new methods, the district has gotten a good start at doing just that, she said. “This is leading-the-nation type of work,” she said.

‘Everyone should participate’

After a November meeting, the district and PTA decided that, instead of combining their trainings, they would both continue to run community trainings and promote one another’s events, allowing as many individuals to get trained as possible, Jeffco PTA president Shawna Fritzler said.

“Parents haven’t really had the access to these materials before, and it’s clearly something the parents want,” with both PTA trainings filling to capacity so far, she said. “Suicide prevention belongs to the entire community.”

Lange agreed. She said she not only wanted to attend QPR training because of her connection to Jeffco schools — she volunteered with the district for more than a decade, her daughter works at Pomona High School and her grandchildren attend district schools — but also because she feels community members need to address “the epidemic” of student suicides.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a parent, or a grandparent, or you just live here; everyone should participate,” she said. “I really wanted to go, and I would do it again.”


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