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Newport-Mesa school district takes steps to improve program for preventing youth suicide

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District is taking steps to improve its program intended to educate staff members and students on ways to prevent youth suicide.

A midyear assessment report presented to the school board Tuesday by Phil D'Agostino, district director of student and community services, and Angela Castellanos, district coordinator of mental health and outreach, followed the suicide of a Corona del Mar High School student in January.

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"As you know, we've had a tragic incident," D'Agostino said. "It's not the first time the Newport-Mesa family has experienced a situation like this. We've planned to give you this presentation before that actually occurred, so it is timely."

The program, which trustees approved in July, requires that all staff members who have contact with students — including teachers, administrative staff, cafeteria workers and custodians — be taught how to identify youths who may be at risk of suicide and how to intervene.

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Secondary school employees have received training, D'Agostino said, and elementary staff training will commence this spring. Additional training will be provided to all district staff members once appropriate content has been determined.

Secondary students will also receive training to help their peers. That will take place this spring and into the fall semester, D'Agostino added.

The district also has more than 70 crisis team responders certified to support people exposed to any situation that could create post-traumatic symptoms.

In the CdM experience, Castellanos said, 27 responders were alerted through the Titan app and helped 899 students and 517 parents over nine days.

D'Agostino said the recent crisis helped officials realize they need to replace the suicide prevention task force composed of students, teachers, counselors, school psychologists and parents with a wellness task force to "look at the bigger picture" and promote mental health.

The district also plans to collaborate with Challenge Success, a Stanford-based nonprofit organization that helps families and students build academic, social and emotional skills.

Instead of focusing on an immediate crisis, the organization looks at school and community culture that may perpetuate students' academic and emotional issues, according to its website.

"We're moving in the right direction, but we can do more," D'Agostino said.

Newport-Mesa's program followed Gov. Jerry Brown's approval in 2016 of Assembly Bill 2246, which was authored by state Assemblyman Patrick O'Donnell (D-Long Beach) after a spate of suicides in recent years among teenagers in San Diego and Palo Alto.

The state requires school boards to develop and adopt policies on suicide prevention that specifically address high-risk groups such as children bereaved by a loved one's suicide, youths with disabilities, mental illness or substance abuse problems and those who are homosexual, bisexual, transgender or questioning their sexuality.

Though the law requires only that districts implement a plan focusing on seventh through 12th grades, Newport-Mesa's includes every grade.

Legal services budget

In other business, the school board unanimously approved increasing the district's 2017-18 legal services budget by $138,000 for Cerritos-based law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo.

The hike brings the total amount to $443,000. The district cited the "complexity of ongoing litigation" as the reason for the increase.

Twitter: @vegapriscella

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