In wake of multiple suicides, Cherry Creek Schools pushes for 'united voice'

District has made array of efforts to stop student suicides

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First, a Cherry Creek High School freshman. Soon after, a senior at Creek. Then, an Eaglecrest High School sophomore. This summer, a recent Grandview High School graduate, followed by a senior from that school.

Each of these teenagers died by suicide this calendar year.

“It’s become something we’re too used to,” said Aidan Allis, a Cherry Creek High senior who tried to stoke conversations about suicide among his friends this year. “But it felt — last (school) year especially — out of our control. It was a wave that hit us, but before we could get up, another wave hit us.”

In response, the Cherry Creek School District's administration has put forth a cascade of changes aimed at preventing suicide and raising awareness about mental health in one of Colorado’s largest and highest-achieving school districts. It added two new directors of mental health. It assigned a mental health coordinator to each of the district’s six high school “feeder” regions to better help students who need it most. It’s expanding suicide prevention programming in its high schools.

“We felt like we needed to do something different and provide more support to our mental health team,” said Tony Poole, a 30-year veteran of the Cherry Creek district and an assistant superintendent. “And, thus, to our kids too.”

There are still more steps to take on the horizon: expanding a new, twice-weekly period of conversation at Cherry Creek High to other schools. Reaching parents about how to approach social media use and monitor their kids.

But so far, the district has taken one especially visible swing at spreading the conversation: a four-minute video, produced by about 20 students from all Cherry Creek district high schools, that gives advice to parents about how to approach the topic of suicide and make a difference for a student who may be struggling. It amassed 7,388 views as of Sept. 25, three weeks after its YouTube release, and the count still climbs.

How effective the efforts will be is difficult to measure — it’s possible that students’ responses on school climate surveys, taken every other year, will reflect a change in how they feel. But Poole, who helps oversee mental health in the district, pointed to a more visceral metric.

“The ultimate measure is, we don’t want to lose another kid,” Poole said. “We do not want to lose another kid to suicide.”

‘Desensitization’

In the first couple weeks of the school year that began in August, about 20 students — from kindergarteners to high school seniors — underwent assessments to determine their risk for suicide in the Grandview feeder area.

“I’d say that’s pretty common,” said Eric Zimmerman, the Grandview feeder’s mental health coordinator, comparing his area’s number of assessments to that of other feeders. “And part of that, too, is (that) the high number of assessments is not necessarily a bad thing. It can also mean that kids are reporting it or adults are connecting.”

Over the years, the number of suicide assessments — where mental health staff discuss with a student how fleshed-out their suicidal thoughts are — has increased, according to Zimmerman. The staff work with parents to support those students or connect them to resources.

As of October, the total number of assessments this school year was 723 throughout the district, or 1.3% of Cherry Creek’s roughly 55,000 students. Most result in a low risk rating, and some kids are assessed multiple times.

The assessments arise from reports of concern by students or adults — sometimes after a troubling social media post, Zimmerman said. Reports regarding suicide also come through Safe2Tell, an anonymous reporting tip line and online platform commonly used in school communities.

Looking through his 14 years in the Cherry Creek district, Zimmerman, a school psychologist, says the upward trend in assessments is consistent districtwide.

“It is really difficult to determine the ‘why,’ “ Zimmerman said. “I think it is due to better identification of students who are struggling, better reporting systems such as Safe2Tell, more awareness on the part of peers and more acceptance of mental health issues (and) treatment.”

The rise also could be partly due to an increase in suicidal thoughts themselves, he said. Rates of reported teen depression have increased in recent years, according to national research.

And today’s generation grapples with a new challenge: social media, which presents problems older generations didn’t confront, said Rick Padilla, father of the Cherry Creek freshman who died by suicide in February.

MORE: Social media brings teens connection but also isolation, conflict

“What I saw in my day was, if you had an incident or problem or something at school, you got on the bus at 3:30, and you didn’t have to deal with it. If you had a beef with somebody, you take care of it the next day,” Padilla said. “Now, it’s 24/7, relentless.”

Fifteen-year-old Jack Padilla took his own life after students allegedly bullied him in person and on social media, according to his family. It was suggested that he use a device to take his own life, and students also threatened to “beat him up and bring a weapon,” his father said.

About six weeks later, another Cherry Creek High student died by suicide.

Suicide is complex and almost always has multiple causes, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That can include mental illnesses, which are treatable, the foundation says.

The parents of some students who died requested that the students’ names not be used in this story, and Colorado Community Media was not able to get in contact with a parent of one student.

Amid this year’s losses, Allis, the Cherry Creek High senior who got involved with suicide prevention efforts, noticed the tone of his conversations with friends take a turn.

It “bothered me, mainly because it got to a point of desensitization that someone passed by suicide,” Allis said. “I remember being with one of my buddies and I said, 'Damn, another one.’ And I stopped myself and thought: They deserved way more than a sentence like that.”

It appears the district agrees. Near the time of the two Creek student deaths, administration on the district’s Suicide Prevention Task Force wanted to better reach parents regarding students’ mental health, according to Janise McNally, district wellness coordinator. Administration enlisted students from each of the district’s high schools to film, edit and speak in the four-minute public service announcement-style video about how to approach a student who may feel suicidal.

The task force was developed by McNally and other district staff in fall of the 2017-18 school year in response to a growing need for suicide prevention efforts in the state and school district, McNally said. On the task force, district mental health staff have examined different aspects of suicide and developed resources for schools and families.

The district hopes to keep the group of students who worked on the video meeting throughout the year and possibly to release another video to support students’ mental health, McNally said.

“I think that these young people around here, they talk about it amongst one another,” Padilla said. “It’s the stigma around it that adults have applied that’s the problem.”

In need of ‘united voice’

The decision — made near the end of last school year — to add two new mental health directors and one mental health coordinator in each of the district's six feeder areas may help steer district policy. Previously, one coordinator and one director handled the entire district. The new positions began this school year.

Asked what changes he’d like to see in the district, Poole, the assistant superintendent, said the new positions “will bring that answer to us.”

“These folks need some time to dig into our systems and evaluate all the things we do for mental health and come up with a better path for a way forward,” Poole said. “I’m sure there will be some changes we need to make.”

Whatever comes next will build on what appears to be a thorough mental health support system.

Already, the district had three mental health professionals at each high school, two at every middle school and one per elementary school, along with a full-time nurse in every school.

Two national programs to raise awareness about suicide — Sources of Strength and Signs of Suicide — have already been active in the district.

Sources of Strength enlists students to change norms about seeking help, and encourages kids to develop strengths — such as family support, positive friends, mentors and healthy activities — through conversations, presentations, and online messages or posters. The program began last year in some Cherry Creek high schools, and this year, the district is expanding it to all its high schools.

The Signs of Suicide program educates about depression, encourages students to seek help for themselves or others, and aims to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness. It has run at all middle and high schools in the district for about a decade.

As part of evaluating that program, McNally said, district staff members met with teams from all Cherry Creek’s middle and high schools to ensure that all school staff are prepared to respond helpfully to concerns about mental health or suicide brought to them by students.

Even middle- and elementary-schoolers engage in social-emotional learning, focusing on decision-making strategies, coping skills and others such topics, said Steve Nederveld, one of the district’s two new mental health directors. This year, Cherry Creek is implementing Second Step — a program that builds those kinds of assets — districtwide for K-8 students.

But amid the firing-on-all-cylinders approach, one new initiative leans on something simpler: talking to each other.

MORE: Large, competitive schools' culture presents challenges for student wellness

At Cherry Creek High, a new period this school year called “advisory” is held Mondays and Wednesdays, where students can talk about their emotions and what’s on their mind.

“The teacher is present; it’s a group discussion,” Allis said. Students can “let go a little bit, relax. If you have extra homework, you can get it done.

“When you’re going through Creek, a lot of things fluctuate — new kids, new teachers, new relationships,” said Allis, who said he’s seen positive responses to the new program from freshmen.

The district will expand it to all of its high schools next year. The period was implemented this fall at Endeavor Academy, the district's alternative high school, too.

The group of students behind the district’s September mental health video are looking to use their voices again, too, to reach farther.

“I think a second video, a part two — a little longer — could go a long way,” said Walter Sykes, a Smoky Hill High School senior who participated in the first one. “It could really hit everybody.

But all the district’s efforts can’t fully address youth suicide on their own, said Superintendent Scott Siegfried, in a letter to the community posted on the district website.

It’s a “communitywide issue,” Siegfried wrote, urging people to open up conversations about suicide with those close to them. “More than ever, we need to create a united voice of understanding, compassion and strength.”

Padilla, sitting at a coffee shop just south of Cherry Creek High six months after his son died, echoed that sentiment.

“It’s not just the schools, not just law enforcement, not just families, not just therapists,” Padilla said. “It’s going to take communitywide solutions to deal with these issues.”

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