By MAX FILBY
Classmates and parents were stunned when an 11-year-old student at Bigelow Hill Intermediate School committed suicide in his Findlay home in March.
Findlay City Schools knew the student was at risk, but the school district could only do so much, Superintendent Dean Wittwer said.
“I believe the school and the mental health community did everything possible to assist this child and family,” Wittwer said.
The Ohio Department of Education has no formal policy on how schools should work to prevent suicides. Instead, school districts are required to develop their own.
When a student at a Findlay school is considered at risk, the student’s parents are contacted and asked to take the child for evaluation through the Family Resource Center or by clinicians at Century Health.
The parents are responsible for getting further assistance, Wittwer said.
“When we see something, we tell the parents and it really is the obligation of the parent or guardian to have some sort of evaluation or screening done,” Wittwer said.
The district is only obligated to intervene further if neglect or abuse is obvious. Then, the district would likely contact Children’s Services, Wittwer said.
The child who died was among a “group of kids” at Bigelow Hill thought to be at risk, Wittwer said.
In September, Principal Pam Hamlin told the school board a counselor had heard of multiple suicide threats in the school and at Northview Primary School, which feeds students into Bigelow Hill. Hamlin did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Suicides are not unheard of among young students.
In Ohio, there were nine suicides by people between the ages of 5 and 14, and 201 suicides by people between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2011, according to the most recent data available from the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation.
Hancock and Allen counties each reported none that year in the 5- to 14-year-old group, and two suicides in the 15- to 24-year-old group. Wood County had none in the 5- to 14-year-old group and one in the 15- to 24-year-old age group. Henry County had one suicide in the 15- to 24-year-old age group and none in the 5- to 14-year-old group.
Hardin, Putnam, Wyandot and Seneca counties reported no suicides in each of the two age groups in 2011.
The foundation said 1,464 Ohioans, including adults, committed suicide in 2011.
Nationally, suicide was the 10th most common cause of death among people age 10 and older in 2009, according to the most recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ohio had 1,296 suicides in 2009, Indiana had 826 and Michigan had 1,164, according to state health agencies.
While Ohio offers little suicide-prevention guidance to schools, it does require teachers and administrators to complete four hours of safety and suicide-prevention training every five years.
Two of those hours can be completed through a program called Safe Schools, and the other two hours of training through different means. Safe Schools is an online program through which teachers and administrators complete lessons and take quizzes on suicide prevention, among other safety measures.
New Findlay teachers and school employees are required to participate in the training, even if it’s an off-year, Wittwer said.
“Our staff has followed the letter of the law in, first of all, getting trained. Second of all, the training talks about … understanding and looking for signs,” he said.
If school employees spot a troubled child, the district can monitor social media, ask permission from parents to have him or her evaluated, and assist families in finding help from mental health agencies.
Wittwer also helps lead a district-wide mental health committee that meets three or four times a year. The committee evaluates how to handle mental health needs in the schools, and works with the Family Resource Center and Century Health to get students and their families help if needed.
Despite the assistance offered, some question whether more should be done.
Precia Stuby, executive director of the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Services board of Hancock County, said screening students for mental health problems could help.
“We screen students for drugs, so why don’t we screen them for mental health issues?” Stuby said. “It’s practically the same thing.”
The stigma about mental health problems may be the reason why such screening doesn’t already take place in schools, Stuby said.
There is no “silver bullet” solution for suicide, but Stuby said a screening system would likely help.
A national movement called Zero Suicide provides signs and strategies to identify people at risk, Stuby said. It is pushing a standardized checklist that Stuby said could help identify those at risk, based on emotional issues.
The campaign points to symptoms such as increased use of drugs and alcohol, loss of interest, or feelings of hopelessness.
Zero Suicide is a program by the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
Although Stuby supports the campaign, she said the concept of using “cookie cutter” methods to identify at-risk people would not always work.
But, mental health screening could help put mental health on the same level of importance as physical health, Stuby said.
Findlay City Schools is one of several districts in the area that require students to be tested for drugs to participate in athletics and extracurriculars.
Schools won the right to test athletes for drugs in a 1994 U.S. Supreme Court case. A 2002 Supreme Court ruling increased the group of eligible students, so anybody participating in extracurricular activities could be subject to screening.
It may be ideal to require students to undergo mental health screening, Wittwer said, but the court rulings don’t go that far. School districts would need parental knowledge or consent to do mental health screenings, he said.
In Ohio, suicide prevention falls under a portion of the Ohio Revised Code that requires school districts to keep students safe from a number of dangers, said John Charlton, media director for the state Department of Education.
“It’s the same as if a student were to get hurt on the bleachers at a school,” Charlton said. “It’s all covered under that.”
A school district is required to “develop its own curriculum in consultation with public or private agencies or persons,” according to state law.
That curriculum must then be used to help train school employees in safety, and prevention of suicides, bullying, harassment, intimidation and violence.
“We certainly are concerned about student health and safety, but we put that on the district,” Charlton said.
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Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation:
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