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Conant School District

Guidance counselors deal with suicidal behaviors

Jaffrey-Rindge: School district reviews, updates protocol for dealing with students coping with thoughts of harming themselves; 12 incidences reported last year

JAFFREY — No one likes to think about the possibility of a high school student threatening to end his or her own life, but Conant High School guidance counselors want to be sure they respond correctly in the event that it does happen. The Jaffrey-Rindge School District dealt with a dozen instances last year in which students made serious suicide threats.

That’s only slightly below the state average for a high school the size of Conant, said Conant guidance counselor Charles Langille in an interview Wednesday.

Langille appeared before the School Board on Monday to make a presentation on some updated protocols for how all three schools in the district will deal with students who are identified as seeking to harm themselves. It won’t change most of the step-by-step process in how the school deals with such cases, said Langille, but it will make the procedures more accessible to all staff and parents, expand documentation of the process, and require that at least two counselors review moderate to high risk cases.

Langille said that the district decided to update the policy after there had been a large changeover in counseling staff. While reviewing policy and procedure, it was decided that the self-harm protocol would be updated to cover some gaps in the documentation procedure.

As the procedure reads, teachers will be trained to recognize certain symptoms that may indicate that a student is at risk for harming him- or herself. The protocol uses potential indicators for suicide risk that have been identified by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They include engaging in risky activities, withdrawing from friends or family, difficulties at school or dropping out of activities, neglect of personal appearance, giving away possessions, dramatic mood changes, including a sudden improvement in mood after a period of being withdrawn, and uncontrollable anger.

Most often, said Langille, it is the students themselves or a friend that first report a possible issue, and approach a teacher or counselor they trust. When a staff member learns of a possible risk, they are required to immediately walk the student to the counselor’s office for a more in-depth evaluation. Once it is determined that a student is at risk, they are not to be left alone, Langille said.

“Too much can happen between the classroom and the guidance office, if a child is in that mode,” he said.

If the teacher is in a situation they cannot leave, the office is contacted and a counselor will come to escort the student to their office personally.

Once in the office, the counselor will conduct a structured risk interview to determine whether there is a low-to-moderate or a moderate-to-high risk of the student harming themselves. Those considered at moderate-to-high risk usually have a plan for ending their life, are actively searching for a plan, or show other signs of being serious in their contemplation of suicide. Previously, this evaluation was done with the counselor taking notes. Under the new protocols, there is a more structured form for documentation, said Langille. Also, the counselor is now required to confer with a fellow school counselor to sign off on the counselor’s assessment. Previously, this only had to be approved by a school administrator, said Langille.

In all cases, the parent is contacted, and the building administrator is advised of the threat and the guidance office’s intervention plan. If the student is determined to be at moderate-to-high risk, the student’s parents are required to come to the school immediately, and the student is supervised until the parent arrives. Should the parent refuse to come to the school as soon as possible, the school is required to contact law enforcement, and a police officer will become involved in determining an action plan. In those circumstances, said Langille, it is considered neglect. A student cannot be transported by ambulance without parental permission, unless police override that decision and make a determination that a emergency medical assessment is called for. In most cases, said Langille, that would be done in the emergency room.

However, that has not been a step the district has had to take in his experience with moderate-to-high risk cases, said Langille. Usually, once parents are contacted, they understand the severity of the situation, he said. “Most parents go into a frightened state and want to do what’s best for their son or daughter,” he said.

At that level, said Langille, the district does recommend that the student receive outside counseling or treatment. The school provides parents with a list of local resources to access. Payment for that treatment falls on the parent, but the district can assist with obtaining financial aid or helping to assist those without insurance to obtain state insurance for children under the age of 18.

There is a reentry process once the student returns to school. The counselor sits down with the student and a trusted adult within the school who will have daily contact with the child, and the school determines and reviews an action plan for any future incidents. Of the 12 moderate-to-high risk incidences the district had last year, Langille noted, there were about eight students involved. A student may have multiple crises before treatment evens things out, he said.

“Everyone likes to think this happens everywhere, but here,” said School Board chair Dan Whitney at the board meeting, following Langille’s presentation of the updated policy. “But it happens in the 532-, it happens in the 899- and it happens in the 924-,” he said, referring to the first three digits of phone numbers for Jaffrey, Rindge and Peterborough. “We have two options. We can be proactive or reactive, and reactive is far too late.

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