CULLMAN - Continuing our series on the suicide crisis in Cullman County, the Tribune sat down with the Cullman County Board of Education's (CCBOE) Learning Support Specialist Karen Pinion, Secondary Curriculum Coordinator Dr. Susan Patrick, and Instructional Programs Director Dr. Anita Kilpatrick, and asked them to explain the mental health resources available to students in the county system.
Jason Flatt Act
The Jason Flatt Act is a federal law that requires teacher in-service training to include youth suicide awareness and prevention.
Pinion explained, "This year, we have fully implemented the Jason Flatt Law, as required by law, from Kindergarten through 12th grade, every single year. This has been really positive.
“Parents were sent home a letter. Some parents are very leery about us talking to their children about suicide, but we've done it in a very delicate way."
The act sets forth numerous standards and policies for suicide prevention, including:
* fostering individual, family and group counseling services
* making referral and intervention information available to students, parents and school staff
* training school personnel who counsel and supervise students
* increasing student awareness of the relationship between drug/alcohol use and suicide
* educating students to recognize warning signs
* promoting cooperation between schools and community suicide prevention programs
* promoting school- or community-based alternative programs
* developing strategies to assist suicide attempt survivors, students, and personnel with
issues related to suicide, suicide attempts, student deaths and healing
* training school employees and volunteers to prevent all forms of bullying
* providing annual training for all certified school employees in suicide awareness and
As part of the program, middle and high school students view a video titled "More than Sad," that covers mental illness, drugs/alcohol, bullying and other topics. Parents and teachers also have the opportunity to view the video. It can be checked out from school libraries, and it is available on YouTube.
For more on the Jason Flatt Act, visit http://jasonfoundation.com/about-us/jason-flatt-act.
"Just like your children are required to learn certain things in math and science," said Pinion, "we're required to teach certain things. We have a course of study, with three different domains that we teach, but one that deals with suicide."
The "personal/social development" domain of the curriculum has components set up to instruct students in appropriate age-level ways about topics such as acquiring and applying self-knowledge (positive self-image, appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior, personal boundaries, self-control, cooperation, conflict resolution, peer pressure, coping skills, etc.), interpersonal skills (respecting alternative points of view, appreciating ethnic and cultural diversity, communication skills, making and keeping friends, etc.), and personal safety (individual rights and personal privacy, identifying and accessing resources for help, making healthy life choices, dangers of substance abuse, etc.).
CCBOE resources and partnerships
The CCBOE has a contract with Mental Healthcare of Cullman/Cullman Area Mental Health Authority to provide in-house mental health services in system schools. Currently, only three system schools are without an onsite representative.
For those schools, as well as the others, Pinion said, "We have a full-time social worker, Scott Carpenter. He travels to all of our schools, so he is an important resource. When we have a student to threaten their life, we call him immediately."
Carpenter is based at Cullman Area Resource Education, the system's alternative school.
The CCBOE also has a partnership with The Bridge Inc., a Gadsden-based substance abuse/addiction recovery program for teens, with an outpatient treatment center in Cullman.
Teacher advisory groups
Students entering system high schools are assigned to a "teacher advisory group" under the supervision of a faculty member. They will continue in that group and with that staffer all the way through graduation. The goal is building relationships, so students will always feel that at least one adult in the school knows them and is on their side.
Pinion said, "In the past two years, those have really become pretty spectacular. What happens is that if a kid coming into ninth grade has Dr. Kilpatrick for her advisory group, Dr. Kilpatrick stays with that group of kids all the way out, just like that kid's advocate. In that big or small high school, they have someone they could go to.
"In these advisory groups that meet monthly, they're talking about issues of harassment, academics, coping skills, all the things on (the personal/social development curriculum). They're not just talking about how are you going to make better grades; it's 'How can you get along with people with opinions that are different than yours.'
"Advisory groups, I think, have done well for our system. I think our kids like it. I think the parents who really understand it like it, and many of our teachers will tell you they enjoy those advisory groups--getting to know specific kids all the way up."
The role of guidance counselors
The CCBOE does not employ full-time psychologists or therapists. Instead, those tasks are given to contracted professionals.
"We do not do individual therapy," explained Pinion. "We are not trained, we are not qualified to do that. We meet the needs of those students then; responsive services is one of our areas. If it is a student who is threatening to commit suicide, we will meet with them, we will transition them back into school if they leave."
Patrick added, "We are not licensed therapists, but they (counselors) have been trained. During this partnership we have with Cullman Area Mental Health, they did extensive training with the counselors to hit on those things more so than what they had in their college education."
This training involves developing such skills as recognition of warning signs and initial response to threats.
If a parent expresses concern that their child is in immediate danger
"If the kid is at home with the parent and didn't come to school that day," said Pinion, "the first thing we would say is take them to the Emergency Room and have an assessment done. That's going to be the quickest, most efficient way.
"If the child is at school, a parent would need to come and get the kid. If a parent is suspicious that a kid may commit suicide, I don't know that leaving them alone is what you want to do. They need to be seen by a professional immediately."
If a student appears to be in immediate danger
According to Pinion, "If a kid threatens himself with a teacher, that teacher, discretely and without alarming the class or hallway, would bring that child to the counselor or to the principal. From that time, he or she would never be left alone. We would make contact with the parents, always.
"We have safety contracts. If they have a therapist with Cullman Area Mental Health, we call them. If they have another therapist, we contact them.
"If a student has said, 'I'm going to kill myself tonight,' we contact the parents and they come and get them. We release them. That kid needs to see a physician stating that they are capable of coming back to school, before they're just dropped off the next morning at 8 a.m.; because we can't be in all places at all times, and we don't want to imply to a kid in any way that we don't believe their threat is serious."
Patrick added, "Those protocols for teachers and counselors were written several years ago; so those have been in place, and teachers and counselors have been trained on those protocols of what to do, and risk factors that indicate a student might be depressed or considering suicide."
The final word
Patrick: "Always take any kind of statement seriously, because you know what the alternatives are. That's what we do at the school level: we take any statement, any indication that a student is interested in self-harm, we take those seriously."
Kilpatrick: "Be mindful and watchful of changes in behavior. Stuff may be going on and they're not telling anybody, but you can tell: if they don't want to go to school, or if they're trying to hide in a room all the time. It's hard because they're teenagers and they're up and down, but if it's a consistent pattern, be watchful."
Pinion: "This is something we say to parents all the time: if they suspect anything is going on with their kid, if they have questions about anything, call the school and build a relationship with that counselor or the principal. We're all here to help their kids."
Coming up, our last two stories in this series:
Interview with Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry
Interview with Chris Van Dyke of Mental Healthcare of Cullman
Interview with Cullman Police Chief Kenny Culpepper: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/09/cullman-city-police-chie...
Remembering Nate: Interview with local suicide victim’s parents: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/09/remembering-nate-parents...
Cullman sees frightening increase in numbers of suicides: http://www.cullmansense.com/articles/2017/02/02/cullman-co-sees-frighten...
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