Teen suicides draw discussion at meeting

Parents, staff and board ponder recent Douglas County tragedies

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Staff, board and community members talked during the Feb. 18 Douglas County School District board meeting about the recent rash of teen suicides.

Comments ranged wildly, with one parent calling for parental unity, a teacher harshly criticizing the superintendent's response and a student suggesting DCSD spend more money on high school counselors.

Four Douglas County teens were lost to suicide between Jan. 31 and Feb. 11 - a number equal to the total of teen suicides in the county in 2013.

ThunderRidge High School senior Sophie Pepin asked if more money would be allocated to high school counseling, noting some students are shifted to peer counselors when adult professionals aren't available.

At about 900-to-1, DCSD's ratio of students to counselors is well below the 250-to-1 level recommended by the American School Counselor Association. When elementary schools - which don't have counselors - are excluded, the ratio of students to counselors at the middle and high school levels is 350-to-1, according to DCSD staff.

School leaders said they can't yet commit to hiring more counselors.

"There are just a lot of things competing for that money," said Superintendent Elizabeth Fagen, specifically noting the district's intent to increase staff pay. "It'll definitely be part of the conversation."

DCSD special education director Jason Germain told the board that student mental health continues to be a high priority.

Teachers are "on the front lines" identifying potentially troubled children, he said, adding that the problem extends well beyond school doors to the nation's approach to mental health.

"I feel the mental health system has been broken for a long time," he said.

School board member Craig Richardson agreed.

"Adolescence onset is occurring earlier and earlier," he said. "We're (also not) defining adulthood until the age of 26. (So) we've elongated this period of adolescent stress ... precisely at the time that we've dismantled our mental health care system. And we wonder why we have problems in addressing the needs of our students."

Parent Becky Barnes, traditionally a strong board supporter, addressed the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting. She said high school sports rivals Castle View and Douglas County came together after the deaths, which included two DCHS students. 

"We as a community need to come together for the sake of our children and the negativity must stop," she said. "Let's take the advice of our children - be strong, supportive and make the difference."

Another parent read a letter written by a teacher that criticized Fagen for not having a physical presence at DCHS.

"You weren't there thanking us for the countless hours we held students' hands while they cried," Amy McDowell read. "You didn't even see fit to send DCHS staff an email thanking us for all that we are doing for our students under such difficult circumstances."

The letter also asked where a teacher could submit their work with distressed students as evidence to support a "highly effective" performance rating.

"There is no way to evaluate that, and if there was, I would be undisputedly highly effective and you, Liz, would be working on that resume because you would be out of a job," McDowell read.