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Schools Adopt Plan to Stem Tide of 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 schools 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 tragedy 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 per 100,000 in 1983. Experts say that for every teen-age suicide, there are 50 to 100 attempts.

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," he said. But teen-agers rarely turn to adults for help, he said, often because the friend threatening to take his own life has sworn them to secrecy or because they fail to take the threats seriously.

San Pedro Schools

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

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

Thus far, Price said, the district's efforts have been "piecemeal." Three district high schools already are participating in a pilot program paid for with state funds 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, which 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 also is receiving assistance from a special team of eight school psychologists provided by the district's senior high school division.

Invited to Counseling

When school resumed on 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 declined to disclose the name of the student who killed herself. 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," she said.

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 a San Pedro 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," said Dorothy Gram, staff psychologist at San Pedro High School. "They have great feelings of guilt, thinking perhaps there was something they could have done" to prevent it, she said. "Suicide is probably one of the saddest kinds of death and the hardest to finish grieving over because it causes a continual self-examination."

Turn to School Psychologist

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

But school psychologists are paid with federal funds earmarked for special-education services and consequently spend most of their time evaluating students with unusual needs, primarily the gifted and educationally handicapped.

In order for school psychologists to spend more time in crisis management and counseling, they would have to be paid from a different source, perhaps district funds, and receive additional support services, Price said.

Gram and Banning High School psychologist Bonnie Burka developed a suicide prevention program on their own time last year.

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