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Board Plans Prevention Program : Schools Struggling to Cope With Suicide

January 16, 1986|ELAINE WOO | Times Staff Writer

In an effort to prevent the 30 to 40 suicides committed each year by Los Angeles school district students, the school board voted unanimously Monday to develop a program that will alert junior and senior high school students to the warning signs of suicide and help a school cope with the tragedy when it occurs.

Those grim statistics, taken from a PTA study conducted in 1979, were underscored by a recent suicide in the district's Southeast Region. According to a school official, the student body president at Bell High School killed herself during the Christmas break, a tragic occurrence that has left students and teachers in grief.

Harbor-area board member John Greenwood, who authored the resolution, told the board that 300 to 400 teen-agers in Los Angeles County commit suicide each year. Nationally, studies show that the teen-age suicide rate has tripled over the last 20 years--from four suicide deaths per 100,000 students in 1963 to 12 deaths per 100,000 students in 1983. Experts say that for every teen-age suicide, there are 50 to 100 attempts.

Curriculum Proposal

Greenwood's proposal calls for developing and implementing a curriculum that will educate adolescents about the common danger signs of suicide and make them aware of school and community resources available to counsel a person contemplating the act.

"It seems that it is students who are the ones aware of when another student is contemplating suicide," Greenwood said. But, he said, teen-agers rarely turn to adults for help, often because the friend threatening to take his own life has sworn them to secrecy or because they fail to take the threats seriously.

Greenwood said two suicides occurred in San Pedro schools last year. One student attended San Pedro High School; the other was a student at Dodson Junior High School.

"I talked to students later who said, 'If I had only known he or she was serious about it.' They did not know the signs," Greenwood said.

Greenwood said he would like every junior and senior high campus to have a trained crisis team that can help a school deal with the aftermath of a suicide, as well as intervene in situations that might lead a student to attempt it.

Gets High Priority

Barbara Price of the district's psychological services division will develop the plan. She said the board is giving the program a high priority, but she was unable to estimate when it might be completed.

So far, Price said, the district's efforts have been "piecemeal." Three district high schools already are participating in a state-funded pilot program to establish suicide prevention programs in secondary schools. And some schools have developed and trained crisis teams, which are usually composed of an administrator, the school nurse, a counselor and the school psychologist.

Bell High School has such a team that has been working very hard to help the school deal with the loss of its student body president, Principal Mary Ann Sesma said. The school is also receiving assistance from a special team of eight school psychologists provided by the district's senior high school division.

When school resumed Jan. 2, the school and district teams identified the students who were closest to the victim and invited them to participate in group counseling sessions. Sesma said she and several teachers have individually counseled students who were troubled by the suicide and asked for guidance.

"The reaction of the school was amazement and profound concern," said Sesma, who asked that the student not be identified. The suicide has evoked "a lot of self-doubt that has to be combatted. Students are expressing concerns for themselves . . . and their ability to cope in society, what hope exists for them. They're worried young people."

'Lost Their Own Child'

The special counselors also have offered help to teachers who knew the student well. "For many," Sesma said, "it's as though they had lost their own child."

According to Dorothy Gram, a San Pedro High psychologist who recently helped her school cope with a student suicide, a crisis team can be instrumental in helping students deal with the deeply disturbing feelings it may stir.

"Many students have difficulty keeping their mind on classes because of a suicide. Their grieving really incapacitates them for a time," Gram said. "They have great feelings of guilt, thinking perhaps there was something they could have done (to prevent it). Suicide is probably one of the saddest kinds of death and the hardest to finish grieving over because it causes a continual self-examination."

Many junior and senior high schools do not have specially trained teams, however. Even in schools that do have them, Price said, staffs generally turn to the school psychologist for guidance when a suicide occurs.

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