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Nov. 17, 2011 Volume 33, No. 13

MU program helps K-12 schools prevent student suicide


Debunking suicide myths helps cause

Children don’t understand the concept of death. Children are unable to plan suicide. Children are unable to implement suicide. James Koller wants schools across the nation to realize that these assumptions are not only dangerous, but also wrong.

The recently retired professor emeritus in MU’s College of Education says debunking the wives tales associated with children and suicide is one of the key goals of his research and training. 

Under Koller’s guidance, a group of graduate students reviewed and summarized about 6,000 pieces of the latest literature on child and adolescent suicide. They condensed their findings into a 196-page document that would serve as a textbook for kindergarten through 12th-grade professionals.

“It’s very comprehensive; it’s not a cookbook,” Koller says. “These people are professionals. They need to be totally informed.” 

The text grew legs earlier this year, when copies reached schools throughout Missouri, under the MU Partnership of Education Renewal (MPER) umbrella.

The renewal program is composed of 22 school districts throughout Missouri, which educate more than 178,000 students. 

Educators within the partnership benefit from the continuing research of the university, says Dan Lowry, co-executive director of MPER. The Mental Health Leadership Academy, a subsection of MPER, was created to address issues that negatively impact student learning.

Lowry says each year the Mental Health Leadership Academy focuses on one mental health issue that is likely to plague students. Lowry, a former guidance counselor, says he had never been trained on how prevent student suicide.

“As school administrators, we are trained on how to react to suicide, not what to listen for,” he says. “When we broached this idea to the 22 districts, everyone went ‘thumbs up.’”

Koller and Lowry designed a two-day workshop for school administrators, teachers and guidance counselors based on the recent suicide prevention research. The intensive training sessions also included testimonials from law enforcement, victims and parents of victims to drive the message home. 

“The incidence of suicide is growing by leaps and bounds,” Koller says. “Adolescent suicide is reaching epidemic proportions.”

Once school officials received their training and manuals, district-specific implementation was in their hands. Those who attended the sessions were encouraged to use what they learned to adopt a new, prevention-centered, concrete approach to suicide for their colleagues.  

Koller says he has been encouraged by the amount of time many schools have already dedicated to their “assignment.” 

Deborah Riggs, a school counselor for St. Louis Public Schools, says they have created a step-by-step guide for what to do in case a student threatens suicide. 

“We didn’t have a procedure before this,” she says. “We formed a team. We now know what to do when students say that they want to kill themselves.” 

Riggs says she has already put the guide to work. When a female student told her mother she was going to kill herself, Riggs aided the mother, who subsequently took her daughter to the emergency room. 

“The student did get some help,” Riggs says. “It turned out that there were extenuating factors that were identified from that visit.”

Dr. Koller and the graduate students’ research has now been converted into an online course for primary and secondary school professionals.

The program has received national accolades as well. The MPER Mental Health Leadership Academy was recently awarded the “Michelli Award for Promoting Social Justice,” from the National Network for Education Renewal.

Koller and his students say they hope the message will become ubiquitous throughout every branch of the students’ network. 

“We wanted to provide to a wide range of school professionals,” says Kristin Birks, a graduate research assistant at the Center

for the Promotion of Mental Health Practices in Schools, who helped develop the training module. Birks says they targeted teachers, nurses, counselors and administrators, as well as cafeteria staff, bus drivers and custodial

staff, because no one knows in whom a child will feel comfortable confiding. 

“We take for granted that it’ll be his or her coach or teacher, but this isn’t always the case,” she says. “We wanted to spread a nice big safety net to protect as many children as possible.”

— Megan Cassidy