Suicide Prevention in Our Schools

Suicide prevention in our schools

This is the second of a four-part series we are writing on suicide prevention for National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Last week: Suicide is preventable, here’s how to help!

Douglas County youth spend approximately 1,400 hours in Douglas County School District (DCSD) schools annually. After twelve years, that’s nearly 17,000 hours. Chances are, during that time there will be some behavioral issues that come up at some point. There will be drama with friends and classmates. There will be tears. There will be disagreements with teachers. There also will likely be anxiety about a test, a competition, a game, or a concert.

These things are natural. But what happens when things escalate and a student begins to exhibit troubling signs more consistently, falls into long-term depression, or engages in unhealthy activities? How can DCSD personnel intervene while also providing a healthy route for these students to redefine their lives so that they do not fall back into unhealthy behaviors, engage in substance use, or desire to end their own lives?

Here’s another challenge: How about those students who do not exhibit troubling signs at all? While four out of five students who try to end their lives exhibit warning signs or opportunities for others to engage, how do we catch that fifth student?

While many tactics are used in DCSD schools, two specific approaches are showing great effectiveness.

A fairly new partnership between DCSD’s Prevention & School Culture team and Douglas County Teen Court coordinators is providing a new path for youth offenders, and Sources of Strength— now present in most DCSD high schools and some middle schools— is establishing a healthy culture and climate with the goal of catching youth long before they fall into unhealthy behaviors or consider taking their own lives.

Sources of Strength Harnesses the Power of Youth Social Networking

Sources of Strength moves beyond a singular focus on risk factors by utilizing an upstream approach for youth suicide prevention. In this model, youth identify trusted adults as sources of support so that when times get hard they have strengths to rely on. More than a program, it’s really a culture embedded into the fabric of a school, and it empowers students to lead the way.

“Sources of Strength has very credible evidence on this theory of how social contagion changes unhealthy cultural norms into healthy ones. It’s peer led, and we know when peers are leading the effort, instantly you have bigger impact. It’s something that’s sustainable. It’s not a program, it’s not an event, it’s not something ‘we do here.’ It’s who we are,” McCormack says.

Ponderosa High School is now in its fifth year with Sources of Strength.

“At first we relied more on district trainings and trainings by the founders of Sources of Strength, but over time we were able to make it more our own. It has our own voice now. It’s been amazing to see how it’s evolved over time. It’s now Ponderosa’s Sources of Strength,” says Ponderosa Spanish teacher Benny Izquierdo, who is helping co-lead Sources this year along with Counselor, Erin Williams.

Ponderosa Assistant Principal, Natalie Munoz-Garcia explains that in order for Sources to be successful, it first requires buy-in from the youth peer leaders.

“We’re trying to spread to students that we all have these sources of strength and teach how to utilize these instead of focusing on unhealthy behaviors,” she says. “So if we are looking at family support, we showed students how you have family at home but you also have the Ponderosa family. We did this great family link activity where everybody wrote down their name on a link of the chain, and they wrote people in Ponderosa, and then their family, and we made a great big visual display of those links connecting together in our main hallway, making a big emphasis on that family support.”

PonderosaWilliams adds, “I like the structure of the [Sources of Strength] wheel because where one piece of the wheel is a strength for one student, another piece of the wheel is a strength for another student. It’s about helping the students recognize the strengths they have, even though it might look different from what their friends have for their strength. It’s that resiliency piece— recognizing and identifying what recharges them for the next day.

Williams’ goal is for peer leaders to meet every couple of weeks to keep the message strong for all students in the building and to encourage their leadership.

“Last year we saw for the first time other student groups reach out to us to ask to partner with them for their activities,” Williams says. “For example, student council held a Student Empowerment Week last year, and they devoted one of those days to Sources of Strength. As time has gone on, it’s being recognized more and more in the school.”

Ponderosa has seen success with the peer-led model.

“Our first year we had a student peer leader connect with a student in need during the school day. They were then referred to the counseling office and an assessment was conducted. The student was at risk for suicide and they were given the help they needed,” Munoz-Garcia recounted. “To me that was an immediate sign of success of Sources of Strength.”

Another one of the primary things Ponderosa’s team likes about Sources of Strength is its focus on positivity.

“This program is all-encompassing. It can serve as an anti-bullying platform as well as suicide prevention tool, but it’s done as a way of promoting positivity and strength,” says Munoz-Garcia.

It’s this approach and model they see working as a great prevention tool to catch youth before they reach a low point.

“One of the metaphors used in the national training is you have your waterfall, and we are throwing them a raft before they get to that waterfall as opposed to throwing them a raft after they hit it,” Williams says.

Stained Glass Window

PARKER--With the recent deaths of the Legend High School students, the community of Parker is very fragile right now. Knowing where to turn for support in times like this is crucially important.

Chaparral High School students, teachers, and staff are still recovering from three student deaths last year, plus a fourth the year prior.

“I have the best counseling team in the country,” Chaparral’s Principal, Greg Gotchey, said. “So I went to them and said what can we do. When we say ‘Chap family’ what does that mean?”

Eric Mullens is the Department Chair of the Counseling department at Chaparral, and he has been with the school since its inception.

“Chap family has always been a big part of who Chaparral is,” Mullens said. “This started at the very beginning with Dr. Mary Gill, the first principal. Then it carried over to [former principal] Ron Peterson, and now to Greg.”

They started looking at their programming, especially their suicide prevention programming.

“Everybody does the same thing,” Mullens said. “If you know of a friend in trouble, tell an adult. If you can’t tell an adult, call 911. The kids learn these things back in Kindergarten. We said, that’s not working anymore. We’re still having kids that, when they’re in a tough spot, they are taking the ultimate way out, and we want to stop that.”

WheelThis school year, Chaparral implemented Sources of Strength in the school. The wellness program uses the combined power of peer relationships and caring adult relationships to improve social norms and enhance social support.

“Sources is about ‘what are the areas of your life that you can depend on?’” Mullens said. “‘When things are tough, who do you go to?’ For me it’s my family. Or I’m going to go to my friends. For some students or faculty members, it might be spirituality.”

There are eight segments of the Sources of Strength pie. If students cannot identify a Source of Strength that they can go to, the counseling department will help find one for them.

As Gotchey, Mullens, and the counseling department began exploring implementation in the school, the interest from students and faculty at informational meetings was overwhelming.

“They told us ‘if you can get 10 to 20 teachers to be faculty advisors for this that would be amazing.’ We had 80. ‘If you could get 60 kids to do it…’ We had 120 give up their first day of their spring break to come and do it at 7:00 in the morning,” Gotchey said.


Signs of this are visible throughout the school. At the front doors there is a mosaic of colored papers, representing the different colors of the Sources of Strength pie, in which kids wrote down the people they can go to. Orange paper chain links run up and down the main hallway at the front of the school, each with the names of family members of the students. These things are helping to solidify relationships in the building.

“One of the teachers said she saw a kid sitting there, just struggling to fill this out, and he said ‘I don’t have family,’ and the teacher said ‘well, put your name on that one and we’ll tie it to the Chap family,” Mullens explained. “What a strong message.”

They are doing other activities to further implement the messages of Sources of Strength. Wish Week is an ongoing tradition where this works. They are also doing a family game night, a movie night, and other things.

Student government is actively breaking down barriers between students, as well. This year, they proactively invited kids from each club at the school to be a voice on student government.

“I think that sense of family is here more than any other place that I’ve been,” said Gotchey.

“You see it at sporting events. You see it during Wish Week. You see it in the canned food drive. You see it in the lunchroom. You get the sense that these kids take care of one another,” Gotchey added. “We want to teach kids what that means. It doesn’t always mean I’m going to drop everything I’m doing to do something for you, but what it means is I’ll drop everything for you if you need it and to show you that you have the strength to get through this. That’s where the Sources of Strength, blended with our traditions, is really blossoming this year.”


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