WESTFIELD – Over the first two weeks of March, Westfield students in grades 6 to 12 will participate in a “Signs of Suicide” (SOS) program, as part of a three-year district partnership with Sandy Hook Promise.
Christopher Rogers, administrator of student interventions and safety officer for Westfield Public Schools, said that suicide is a topic that needs to be addressed, and is especially needed right now. Rogers noted that across the country, there is a rise in teenage depression, a rise in suicide attempts and actual suicides in grades 6 to 12.
Training for the SOS program began on Nov. 3 with the administration team, school counselors and support staff. Since that time, the administrative team has been meeting regularly on how to apply the training for staff and students, Rogers said.
Teachers took the training the first week of February over Zoom and Google Meet. Jill Keenan, adjustment counselor at Westfield Intermediate School, said teachers were shown the video and a powerpoint representation, and were able to ask questions at the end. She said they were taught safety protocols, and given the chain of command, so if there are concerns that are raised, they know who to talk to.
Keenan said the video that will be shown to students in grade 6 over the first two weeks in March is age appropriate. It focuses on warning signs in themselves and others. “The kids will relate to it,” she said.
Westfield Middle School Assistant Principal Karoline Kells said parents were sent out information about the upcoming program in Spanish, Russian, Ukranian and English, and information has been posted on the schools websites and Facebook pages.
“We did get some great responses from parents. Some parents chose to do the training themselves and help their children at home,” Kells said. She said one parent requested their child not attend, but after reviewing the materials, decided to have their child attend. She said they have also been contacted by parents who had family members commit suicide, who wanted them to reach out to their children ahead of time, which they did this week.
At WMS, the video will be shown on March 1 to Cohort B in teams in the auditorium, where there is enough room for students to be well over six feet apart, and on March 8 to Cohort A. She said all of the counseling staff will be there to support the students. Next year, they will present the program to remote students. “We decided to do it all in person. It’s serious, and we don’t want children to go through this process alone,” Kells said.
At the end of the presentations, each child will receive a Google form that will go to their counselor, if they have any questions or want to follow up.
At Westfield Technical Academy, Manufacturing Tech instructor Gary Nadeau said their presentations will be made by all the counselors to two shops at a time, on March 2, 3 and 4 for Cohort B, and on March 9, 10 and 11 for Cohort A. He said students will fill out a form at the end to see if they want to speak to any trusted adult in the building.
Westfield High School Assistant Principal Kevin Zdroykowski will have presentations on the program from school counselors, adjustment counselors and the school psychologist, who will go into the classrooms in pairs. He said classroom presentations will be held on March 3, and 4 for Cohort B, and on March 9 and 10 for Cohort A..
Zdroykowski said all of the counselors were part of the training by Sandy Hook Promise, and have been meeting as a team as well. They sent information home to parents, and received back similar feedback. “One guardian wanted to make (us) aware that this was a sensitive topic for their student,” he said, adding they definitely have had some students impacted by suicide.
Keenan said in the last two years, there has been “a concerning amount of students coming forward about themselves, not just peers,” especially in the fifth and sixth grade. She said they are on the threshold of identifying these feelings, which is getting younger every year.
Signs of Suicide’s (SOS) purpose is to identify students who are in crisis, so they get the help they need. Some that are identified might be predicted by staff or peers beforehand while some may have been flying under the radar, according to information from the program.
“Our number one goal is always to keep our students and staff safe; keeping everybody safe is our number one concern as part of the community,” Rogers said. He said they’ve always had teachers in place to assist students, along with policies and safety plans, which have been a part of the curriculum in the schools and in the health classes.
“What Sandy Hook Promise was able to do is streatmeline and keep it moving forward,” he added, which he said is a need not just in Westfield but everywhere. He said since COVID-19 hit, with the isolation, social distancing, and cohorting in schools, “our kids are losing social connections. Human beings were created as social beings. A lot of that has been taken away.”
“It’s something we’ve always addressed, has always been a topic of concern for us,” Rogers said, adding the timing of this program helps them to navigate unprecedented times in the country.