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‘If you see something, say something.’ Newport-Mesa school district seminar teaches suicide warning signs

As part of the Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s new program to educate staff about student suicide prevention, parents were invited to a seminar Tuesday night at Corona del Mar High School to learn about what experts say is a rising crisis nationwide.

“We feel it won’t happen in our backyard, but it’s happening everywhere,” said Angela Castellanos, district coordinator of mental health and outreach services. “We’ve had incidents where our students have died by suicide, so we’re not isolated from the phenomenon.”

The district program, approved by the school board in July, will train all staff members who have contact with students — including administrators, teachers, cafeteria workers and custodians — on how to identify youths who may be at risk of suicide and how to intervene.

Students will receive training later this year.

The program follows Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval in 2016 of Assembly Bill 2246, 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.

That decision was made after four upper-grade elementary school students shared that they had suicidal thoughts last school year, Phil D’Agostino, district director of student and community services, told the school board earlier this year.

A task force of students, teachers, counselors, school psychologists and parents began customizing a plan for the district in March. The task force will continue to advise the district as the program is implemented.

About 25 parents attended Tuesday’s seminar, where Castellanos led a presentation on suicide risk factors and warning signs and the district’s plan.

Similar seminars will be held this month at other district high schools.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among children and young adults ages 10 to 24, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Orange County, about 2,800 residents intentionally harm themselves enough to require medical treatment, and nearly 280 commit suicide every year, according to a 2015 report by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Being the victim of bullying is one of the biggest pieces that may lead to suicide, Castellanos said. Other potential warning signs, she said, are self-inflicted injuries — which often are shared on social media — a failed relationship and substance abuse.

“You’re the expert on your kids,” she said. “You’re here today learning about warning signs. Make sure if you have any concerns about your students, don’t wait — connect with the school to get help you need.”

A guide sheet available to parents at the seminar encourages them to remain calm, listen to their children’s feelings, be honest and supportive and, when necessary, contact a local mental health or family service agency.

Pamphlets were available from the Costa Mesa Family Resource Center, Melinda Hoag Smith Center for Healthy Living and One Recovery, a program with a location at CdM High School and one at Ensign Intermediate School where students can confidentially share their experiences and feelings.

During the Q&A portion of the meeting, some parents shared frustration about their students dealing with bullying at school, including one who cited anti-Semitic remarks.

Neither the parents nor district officials would elaborate about specific incidents. D’Agostino said the district is aware of such issues and is working to address them.

D’Agostino cited as a resource the Positive Behaviorial Interventions & Supports program, a framework funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs intended to develop school culture that leads to “social, emotional and academic success” for all students.

“CdM is a very socially oriented, socially complex school,” D’Agostino said. “We live in the O.C. — status and images and culture are all wrapped up in the kids’ identities.

“It’s really important if you see something, you say something.”

Seminar schedule

Following are upcoming parent seminars on suicide education and prevention strategies:

Nov. 15: 6 p.m., Newport Harbor High School reading room, 600 Irvine Ave, Newport Beach

Nov. 21: 6 p.m., Costa Mesa High School theater, 2650 Fairview Road

Nov. 29: 6 p.m., Estancia High School theater, 2323 Placentia Ave., Costa Mesa

Priscella.Vega@latimes.com

Twitter: @vegapriscella

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