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String of youth suicides in Rancho Cucamonga bring alarm, new focus on mental health training

After a string of suicides within the first two weeks of classes, Rancho Cucamonga school districts are refocusing their attention on mental health services and suicide prevention projects.

Four students who attended Rancho Cucamonga school districts — a 10-year-old boy, a 15-year-old girl, a 16-year-old girl and a 16-year-old boy — died by suicide from Aug. 6 to Aug. 19, officials said this week.

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“There is no greater tragedy than the death of a young person, and since the start of the school year, our Chaffey District community has been shaken by the loss of three students to suicide,” said Mathew Holton, superintendent of the Chaffey Joint Union High School District, in a message to parents.

Therapists were deployed to each school to assist grieving students and staff. A total of 18 marriage and family therapists, 54 counselors, 27 psychologists and five psychotherapists are available to students across the district’s 12 schools.

Holton sent parents an email Tuesday night outlining what the district is doing for mental health and suicide prevention.

The district already has a task force composed of mental health professionals from each school and community members who meet regularly to expand and improve its services, he said.

On Tuesday, a new community task force had its first meeting, Holton said. City officials, police and fire chiefs and superintendents of school districts in the area met to discuss how they can share resources to meet students’ and community members’ mental health needs.

Holton also told parents the district will develop more partnerships with mental health agencies in the area and organize more programs — such as assemblies and classroom curriculum — with topics that include information about suicide, bullying, self esteem and the appropriate use of social media.

“Mental health is so complex,” Holton said by phone Wednesday. “As a district we are committed to continue to have a pulse on our campuses, to watch our campuses and, most importantly, to be proactive in our relationship with our students and the services we provide for them.”

The Alta Loma School District, a K-8 district, will also be involved in the community task force Holton referenced.

“The Alta Loma School District is deeply saddened at the loss of one our students,” said Supt. James Moore in an emailed statement. “The District has rallied around the family, students and staff to provide support and resources during this difficult time. We will continue to provide multi-tiered systems of support for all of our students throughout the year.”

The district did not respond to further questions.

Mental health experts have expressed concern about “suicide contagion,” a phenomenon in which people are influenced to attempt suicides after hearing about it, either in the news or in their communities.

After the death of actor Robin Williams in 2014, suicide rates in the country increased by 10%, according to a study published in the journal PLOS One in February. And after the death of Marilyn Monroe in 1962, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that suicide rates jumped 12% compared with the previous year.

When celebrity chef and author Anthony Bourdain killed himself this year, days after the suicide of fashion icon Kate Spade, Madelyn Gould, a professor of epidemiology in child psychiatry at Columbia University, said, “I was sad for him and for all the people who were going to hear about it, and I am also sad for people who might be influenced by it.”

On social media, Rancho Cucamonga parents grieved and discussed their shared worries that social media and phones are keeping children isolated, making them more susceptible to bullying and possibly even encouraging them to participate in dangerous behavior.

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The “Momo Challenge” was one topic of concern in the Rancho Cucamonga News Group on Facebook. On WhatsApp and other messaging tools, people can text the account — whose avatar is a sculpture of a woman with disturbing and exaggerated features — and the account responds with threatening and demeaning comments.

The Buenos Aires Times reported that the death of a 12-year-old girl in Argentina may be linked to the game.

Holton said that he is aware of the game and that parents and staff should keep an eye on these online phenomena as well as TV shows that relate to suicide, such as Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.” But he sternly denied that the Momo Challenge had anything to do with the recent suicides.

A spokesperson for the Fontana Police Department, which responded to the death of one of the students in his Fontana residence, said the suicide was “not related to that at all.” The suicides do not appear to be connected and the students did not know one another, according to the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Howard Adelman, co-director of the School Mental Health Project at UCLA, said large school districts can have difficulty seeing the effect of their mental health and suicide prevention services on a large scale.

“There’s a difference between having something that you would like to happen across the system and to actually have it go to scale at every school in a big district,” he said.

Because of limited resources, the measures taken by schools to improve mental health are often “fragmented and piecemeal,” he said.

Adelman encourages a more proactive and broad approach to mental health in schools. Schools should promote positive emotional and social development as well as respond to crisis situations like the one Rancho Cucamonga schools are facing now, he said.

“The solution isn’t just add more bodies, but to take a step back and look at this from a system perspective,” he said.

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign legislation that would require public schools to print the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number on the identification cards of students in grades seven through 12. Senate Bill 972 by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) passed in both houses and if signed would be implemented starting July 2019.

Holton said that since the deaths, the student body has rallied together. Students in high schools across the district wore red in honor of their classmates, and there have been a number of activities to show support since the deaths were reported, he said.

On Twitter, students grieved and posted their support for friends and family of one Etiwanda High School student who appears to be one of those who died.

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“What is most challenging … is really making sure that we are there for students and they feel like they can communicate and feel like they have someone who will listen to them, that cares about them,” Holton said. “We’re all in this together.”

If you or a loved one is considering suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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