School district addresses sensitive issue of youth suicide

Staff from the Youth Suicide Prevention Program met with students at Vashon High School last week, where two professionals in teen suicide prevention talked about stress, depression and mental illness as well as ways to intervene if a classmate seems suicidal.

Angela Rinaldo, director of training at the Seattle-based organization, said she also had every student identify someone he or she could talk to if a crisis were to arise and asked students to fill out evaluations saying what they had learned from the presentations.

The hour-long discussions in various classes, organized so that every VHS student who was at school last Wednesday or Thursday attended a session, was part of Vashon Island School District’s response to a recent tragedy — the suicide of 14-year-old Palmer Burk on Oct. 4.

Rinaldo, who’s gone into many schools over the years to discuss youth suicide, said she’s been particularly impressed by the school district’s response. “It’s just been so powerful,” she said.

The district also had the two women talk to the entire staff at the three public schools during teachers’ professional development block last week. Next week, they’ll talk to students at McMurray Middle School and will hold another parent forum on the issue.

“The school has made a remarkable commitment to ensure they have a way to converse about these very sensitive subjects. … I feel very good about it,” Rinaldo said.

Yvonne Zick, who works at Vashon Youth & Family Services and has played an integral role in bringing Rinaldo and her colleague to Vashon, said she, too, has been struck by the thoroughness of the district’s response and staff’s openness to what she knows are difficult discussions.

People often are hesitant to discuss suicide, fearing that it can plant an idea in someone’s head that wasn’t there before, Zick said. But in fact, she said, it’s important “to lift the cloak of silence.”

“I think the school district is responding in an amazing way,” she said.

Some students, meanwhile, don’t want to talk about the issue any more, Zick said; others are still grieving.

“You could see this was an emotional topic for some of them,” Zick said.

Susan Hanson, principal at VHS, said the evaluations students filled out have given her and her counseling team more information about students who may still be struggling in the wake of Palmer’s death.

“We have our list of youngsters who were close to Palmer or have had loss in their own lives. We’re continuing to touch base with them,” she said.

At Chautauqua Ele-mentary School, Zick plans to have someone come to the school and speak more generally about death and grief. The district decided to do so in part because a young student recently lost his mother, Zick said, and many are feeling the pain of her loss and the impact on her son.

Meanwhile, the district is discussing a suicide prevention curriculum that could be folded into the middle school and high school’s health classes — age appropriate information developed by the Youth Suicide Prevention Program.

“Our next goal is to get those curriculum embedded into the schools, so that every kid, every year, is getting the prevention piece,” Rinaldo said.


A forum for parents on youth suicide prevention — “Adolescent and Teen Stress: Know the signs and when to seek help” —  will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 8, at McMurray.



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