Students walking through the hallway between classes at Oak Harbor High School. The district is working with the group Forefront to promote suicide prevention for its high school students. Photo by Laura Guido/Whidbey News-Times

Oak Harbor Schools work with UW to address youth suicides

Oak Harbor Schools are starting a partnership this month with a center for suicide prevention after recent survey results showed high rates of suicidal thoughts among high school students in Island County.

Forefront, part of the University of Washington School of Social Work, offered to work with school districts in the county because of the survey results.

“Any prevention we can do is worth its weight in gold,” said Lance Gibbon, superintendent of Oak Harbor Schools.

The Healthy Youth Survey, done by the Washington State Department of Health and the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, found that among 12th graders in the county, 23 percent had considered suicide within 12 months of taking the survey. For 10th-grade students, 21 percent had considered it. The highest percentage was among 10th-grade girls, with 29 percent saying they had considered taking their own life in the year prior to the survey.

This issue is not unique to Island County. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24 in Washington state, according to the state department of health.

The survey found that 18 percent of 10th graders in Washington thought about attempting suicide in the 12 months before taking the survey.

Under the partnership, the school district will create a team of administration, staff, faculty and parents to complete training with the organization.

The center would work with the team to develop the districts’ crisis plan to ensure inclusion of a focus on suicide prevention, intervention, re-entry and “postvention,” according to the memorandum of understanding.

Training would also include learning to recognize signs and symptoms of suicidal behavior and how to respond, ensuring parents are offered education on the issue and assessing how students are being taught to identify a peer who is struggling.

Steven King, assistant superintendent, said the Oak Harbor district is currently working to put together the team, with a focus on people who work with at-risk students.

King said the high school principal is also currently recruiting parents who might be interested.

Oak Harbor’s percentages were slightly higher than the county’s, with 25 percent of 12th graders and 22 percent of 10th graders responding that they had considered suicide.

The district has made efforts to encourage prevention including posting information about a suicide hotline in their high school and providing access to mental health counselors.

“We’re doing many things to help keep our students safe, and it’s all worth it if we can save even just one life,” said King.

The South Whidbey School District had previously had a partnership with Forefront and trained all of their staff in suicide prevention, said Jo Moccia, superintendent of the district.

“We want to continue to work with them to ensure we are doing all we can to assist all of our students and staff so that we prevent a crisis from occurring,” Moccia said in an email.

She said the new partnership “just makes sense for us.”

Coupeville School District decided not to work with Forefront. District Superintendent Jim Shank said the high school has highly trained suicide prevention counselors on campus, so they felt the partnership with Forefront would be unnecessary. “We feel like we have really good support, and we’re pleased with it,” he said.

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