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Student suicide prevention plan in the works for Newport-Mesa schools

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In line with state legislation, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District is expected to launch a program this fall intended to educate district staff members and students on ways to prevent youth suicide.

The district board Tuesday unanimously approved the first reading of a new policy directing staff to implement a districtwide suicide prevention program for kindergartners through 12th-graders.

If the board approves the policy a second time, all staff members who have contact with students — including teachers, administrative staff, cafeteria workers and custodians — will be taught how to identify youths who may be at risk of suicide and how to intervene.

Students also will receive training in their classes to emphasize good decision making, healthy choices and resilience.

The policy is expected to return for final board approval Wednesday.

Phil D’Agostino, the district’s director of student and community services, said withdrawal from social settings, chronic absences and sudden declines in school performance could be signs that a student may commit suicide.

“The one duty we all have is to care about kids, and these warning signs are what we’re alerting our staff to keep an eye out for,” he said.

The district’s plan comes on the heels of Assembly Bill 2246, authored by Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach) and approved by Gov. Jerry Brown in September. The legislation was inspired by a string of suicides among teenagers in San Diego and Palo Alto in recent years.

The law requires school boards to 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 or questioning their sexuality.

“We recognize this is a major cause of death among youth and we take that very seriously,” said Newport-Mesa board President Karen Yelsey. “We’ve been working toward this for a while, and we really hope this brings increased attention to emotional and behavioral health for our students.”

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

National statistics show that 17% of students in grades 9 through 12 reported seriously considering suicide in 2013.

In Orange County, statistics show 65 teenagers took their own lives between 2009 and 2013. Four of them were from Costa Mesa, four from Huntington Beach and one from Laguna Beach. Newport Beach and Fountain Valley had no youth suicides in that period, according to a report by the Orange County Health Care Agency.

Since children spend a significant amount of time in school, employees who interact with them daily are in a unique position to recognize the warning signs of suicide and refer the students to counselors or others who can help, according to the state legislation.

Though the law requires only that districts implement a plan focusing on grades 7 through 12, Newport-Mesa wanted to take it a step further and include every grade, D’Agostino said.

That decision was made after four upper-grade elementary school students shared that they had suicidal thoughts last school year, D’ Agostino said.

“It is an issue we are taking extremely seriously,” D’Agostino said. “The fact of the matter is that mental health issues, especially as they pertain to anxiety, depression and drug abuse, are creeping into age groups in ways we haven’t seen before.”

Staff and students in seventh through 12 grades are planned to be the first to receive training early in the school year. The district aims to phase in education for elementary school students and staff by the spring.

A task force intended to review sample policies from the state and customize a plan for Newport-Mesa began its work in March. The task force, made up of students, teachers, counselors, school psychologists and parents, will continue to advise the district as the program is implemented.

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


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