How San Diego County educators are working to reduce suicides among transgender teens

Educators from across San Diego County gathered in San Marcos last week to develop strategies for battling teen suicide — spurred in part by the deaths of at least four transgender students in the region over the last year.

Experts at the forum said that although the suicide rate for all age groups in San Diego County declined about 4.7% from 2013 to 2014, the number of deaths among transgender students was cause for concern.

"We felt compelled to get the message out," said Carol Skiljan, an Encinitas school board member who is on the San Diego County Suicide Prevention Council.

School counselors and other educators said they're seeing more kids struggle with gender identity issues and thoughts of suicide.

"The fact is, kids are coming out at an earlier age" and may need additional support and help with coping skills, Skiljan said.

The forum — attended by nearly 100 educators, administrators and high school counselors — is a first step toward building a gender-inclusive environment in county schools, said Don Buchheit, senior director of student services for the San Diego County Office of Education.

"There remains a lot of work to do," Buchheit said.

Stephanie Cruz, a counselor at Westview High School in Poway, said more students are coming into her office struggling with gender identity.

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"I've had several students attempt suicide," she said. "It's heartbreaking that they think there are no other options."

She said that students who say they've considered suicide often feel isolated and aren't sure where to turn.

"Some students are reluctant to talk about it, or they simply downplay it," she said. "I let them know it's OK to talk about it and seek help. If it's not me that they want to talk with, I can direct them to the right services."

Kyler Prescott, 14, was one of the transgender teens in the county who committed suicide in 2015.

His mother, Katharine Prescott, didn't attend the forum but said that "probably the most important thing for educators to do is train teachers and staff to be more sensitive and understanding."

Max Disposti, director of the North County LGBTQ Resource Center in Oceanside, said he already was training teachers and staff members in that school district on compliance with state laws and how to stop bullying of transgender youths.

"It's about accepting everybody," he said.

At the forum, Buchheit presented results of a Healthy Kids Survey for the 2014-15 school year that found about 18% of the 63,068 students in grades seven, nine and 11 had considered suicide. The survey is administered every two years and covers 213 schools in the county.

About 31% of the respondents said they experienced chronic sadness and helplessness, with 49% saying they had a strong and positive connection to their school, and 38% as having a caring adult relationship at school.

"This makes me feel sad for all of those who have no strong connection to someone at school," Buchheit said. "As opposed to asking the question, 'What's wrong with you?' It should be, 'How can I help?'"

pat.maio@sduniontribune.com

Maio writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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A version of this article appeared in print on January 11, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Working to help transgender students - San Diego County educators are developing ways to help prevent suicides." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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