Steamboat Springs School Board talks about bullying, suicide at retreat

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— Topics such as suicide and depression can sting still-healing wounds in a small community, but school counselors and social services workers across Routt County have seen increases in bullying, violence and other behavioral issues in school-age children, raising concern and a need for a plan for the future.

Steamboat Springs School Dis­­­trict Superintendent Sha­­­­lee Cun­­­­ningham said a two-hour work­­shop Friday with Steam­­boat Springs School Board members and social services representatives was a start to facing the issues head-on.

“I think it’s a wake-up call for all of us,” Cunningham said after the workshop, which was part of a one-day School Board retreat. “Bullying, violence, suicide, depression — all of the things we talked about today — exist in our community and schools, and we want to address that up front instead of burying our heads in the sand.”

School Board members, representatives from Reaching Every­one Preventing Suicide, Steam­­boat Springs Mental Health, Grand Futures Prevention Coal­ition and school counselors spent two hours discussing the complex web that weaves together depression, suicide, bullying, violence and substance abuse.

The glue that seemed to be holding that web together in recent school years has been the economic recession and problems at home, the group members agreed.

Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide coordinator Ronna Aut­rey said her statistics show an increase in suicide attempts in school-age children.

Nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24.

Counselors like Strawberry Park Elementary School’s Valerie Mc­­Carthy have seen those numbers manifest in behavioral issues.

“I think we saw an increase this last school year in the number of interventions we did in terms of stuff going on at home and kids not being able to get it together,” she said.

At the middle school and high school levels, counselors Shelby DeWolfe and Alison Hobson said accounts of cyber-bullying through Facebook, MySpace and texting are on the rise.

John Fleeker, program director for Steamboat Mental Health, said these incidences might not necessarily lead to suicide but that they can have an impact on a community.

“Does everyone who’s bullied commit suicide? No,” he said. “But we know the effects of bullying can be tremendous. They can cause substance abuse; we can see increases in cutting (self-mutilation) behavior, missing classes, fighting, truancy. We know it’s all interconnected.”

The panel agreed that reaching children as young as possible, with programs already in use like Second Steps and Hazelden No-Bully and Safety First, can help catch behavioral problems sooner and teach empathy and compassion in a lasting manner.

“What it needs to be is social-emotional learning,” Hobson said. “Because of the reasons society’s changed in general, kids are not coming to school with the skills to relate. We’re seeing more social deficits, and we’re having to provide prevention-based intervention.”

During the discussion, Fleeker and Autrey professed their support of the school district in providing access to services for children and families in need.

Cunningham and Autrey ag­­reed it could be beneficial for teachers and other school employees to take the Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training and made a commitment to pursue the possibility.

The high school also will implement a new program this year called Rachel’s Challenge, based on a cultural empathy campaign from the diaries of a Columbine victim. The Columbine shooting also started a dialogue on bullying.

School Board President Robin Crossan said she was impressed with the amount of communication among the district and different services.

“From what I’ve heard today and reading through what our goals are, it sounds like you’re doing quite a bit to move forward, so at least the education piece is there,” she said. “It all goes back to safe environment and not just an intellectually safe environment.”

DeWolfe agreed the counseling team, along with the support of services like Steamboat Mental Health, REPS and Grand Futures, are aiming at keeping schools safe and positive.

“We’re passionate about this every day; this is our thing,” she said. “It means so much that we can come share this and continue to make a better, safer place for our students.”

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