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As Kansas Youth Suicide Rises, State Pushes Prevention Training For School Workers

Chris Neal of Shooter Imaging
Kansas News Service

Simplistic crisis plans and missing mandatory training by some Kansas schools led the Kansas Board of Education on Tuesday to reinforce its suicide prevention requirements.

Suicide rates in the United States have been going up for years, but the rates have risen faster in Kansas. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Kansas suicide rateincreased by 45 percent from 1999 to 2016.

The youth suicide rate in Kansas more than doubled from 2005 to 2015. That led to the creation of the Youth Suicide Prevention Task Force and its recommendation of a state coordinator focusing on the issue.

“More needs to be done because the problem is right in our face,” said Scott Rothschild, a spokesman for the Kansas Association of School Boards.

Then-Gov. Sam Brownback signed the Jason Flatt Act in 2016. The law required mandatory suicide prevention training for all school employees and detailed crisis plans.

Wichita Public Schools officials said they have noticed an uptick in reporting from their staff regarding suicide concerns since the law passed. Advocates say the law has helped bring more awareness to the issue.

“Before 2016, you would not have seen mental health fairs in the schools,” said Steve Arkins, founder of the suicide prevention foundation Speak Up, located in the Kansas City area. “You would not have seen student councils and clubs develop to try to promote mental wellness in their schools.”

But the act has received some pushback in Kansas. A failed bill in the Kansas Statehouse last year would have removed the need to provide the one-hour annual training to all employees. Some districts have said it’s a waste of resources to train workers who have little-to-no contact with students, such as janitors and plumbers.

Wichita Public Schools trains all its employees in suicide prevention, but district officials question the need to provide training to all workers.

“It's a great thing to provide that training, but we do question the need to train, for example, seasonal employees,” said Terri Moses, the director of safety services at Wichita Public Schools. “It is a drain on resources and logistically it's a difficult thing to do.”

A Kansas State Department of Education survey of school districts found more than a third of districts were not providing suicide prevention training to their mental health workers.

The state board adopted the council’s recommendations Tuesday to determine how to better monitor the mandatory training.

The board also approved more flexibility in implementing the training. Schools will now be able to provide specialized training for different personnel, though the one-hour of training for all staff is still required. That would require a change to state law.

KSDE officials say the new law will prevent the annual training from becoming just another hour in a long list of mandated training that employees doze through.

“You get these critical truly life-and-death type discussions that we need to have and they get regulated to a checklist,” said Myron Melton, an education program consultant with KSDE.

The mental health advisory council also took issue with the crisis plans at schools. The state board requires that the plans include guidelines for identifying students with thoughts of suicide, intervention and dealing with the aftermath of suicide.

But most districts had little more in their plans than who workers should contact in the school for all matters related to suicide. KSDE will provide crisis templates to schools and assist in updating their current plans.

“We just want to make sure they have suicide protocols so that it’s clear what they are to do if something happens,” said Kathy Busch, the chair of the Kansas State Board of Education.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link back to the original post.

Copyright 2019 KMUW | NPR for Wichita

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.