How Naperville's District 203 is working to prevent teen suicide
Efforts to screen students for suicide risk and standardize procedures for helping those in need have been "a real-time savior for students" in Naperville Unit District 203, officials say.
Since two Naperville North High School students died by suicide during the 2016-17 school year, the district has been working to ensure it is providing the best support and prevention measures to keep students alive and improve their mental health.
Administrators brought in Jonathan Singer, an associate professor of social work at Loyola University Chicago and a suicide intervention expert, to conduct community presentations in December 2017 and to review the district's procedures.
The main changes administrators made after Singer completed an initial review in January 2018 have led to "centralized" suicide response procedures, more staff training and screening of all students in grades six to 12 to determine their level of risk, said Christine Igoe, assistant superintendent for student services.
Students and teachers in junior high and high school complete the SOS Signs of Suicide training, which teaches them to "ACT," or acknowledge, care and tell, when someone is in distress.
Staff members now know what they are supposed to do if they notice a student showing signs of suicide risk, and each school now has a building response team to handle any potential suicide crisis.
Students who show a risk for suicide on the screening exam are seen by a staff member in student services and referred to further help, typically through Linden Oaks Behavioral Health in Naperville.
Naperville Central High School student Claire Yu, an ambassador to the school board, said administrators should do more to teach students their rights when it comes to seeking help from counselors without triggering parental notification.
"What do you propose to resolve that fear that, 'Oh, if I speak out, my parents are going to be notified, all this is going to happen and it's going to sort of come crashing down on me,'" Yu asked Igoe during a presentation to school board members.
Igoe said administrators can't promise not to inform parents or not to send students for outside mental health help if they show they are at risk of harming themselves.
"It is our job and our responsibility," Igoe said, " ... to make sure kids get the services and support they need."
School board members said they agree with that approach and are comforted to know all junior high and high school students are tested for suicide risks and warning signs.
"I'd rather have a false positive that we give too much attention to than a missed person that we should have given more attention to," school board Vice President Donna Wandke said. "It's important that we don't miss anyone that may need that help."
School board President Kristen Fitzgerald called the new suicide screening and intervention procedures "a real-time savior" after hearing how helpful the practices have been for principals.
In the next few years, Igoe said, the district plans to work on additional suggestions Singer gave to decrease suicide likelihood among students. Among them are making sure gender-diverse students feel welcome by using gender-inclusive language in all district communications, updating social and emotional learning resources and providing more specialized crisis training.
• If you or a loved one are in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.