Throughout the summer, Councilmember Grosso’s office worked with advocates from The D.C. Center, the Trevor Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and others on the “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015” which Councilmember Grosso introduced today along with Chairman Mendelson and Councilmembers Nadeau, Allen, May, McDuffie, Todd, Bonds, Silverman, and Cheh.
According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (a federal survey by the Centers for Disease Control last administered in 2012), 38% of our LGBTQ middle school students had attempted suicide in their lifetime and 28% of our LGBTQ high school students had attempted suicide within the last year.
Furthermore, examining the data on the CDC website yields startling results. Most glaring is that 20.5% of high school aged Hispanic young women had attempted suicide—that is one fifth of the Hispanic young women in the District of Columbia. Additionally, it shows that 14.1% of high school aged African American young women had attempted suicide within the previous 12 months.
Overall, according to the 2012 survey results, 14.7% of District of Columbia high school students came up with a plan to die by suicide. If we apply that percentage to today’s enrollment that would be roughly 1,668 students who will plan to end their lives. They are not planning for A’s in the classroom, or for prom, or for sports practice, but those 1,668 students would be planning for the end of their life, when there should be so many years ahead of them.
Additionally, 13.4% had attempted suicide within the last 12 months in 2012. Again, if that percentage remains the same today, we can estimate that roughly 1,520 high school students may attempt to end their lives this school year. These students should be learning, thriving, and enjoying their youth.
In order to ensure that our students get the help and support they need, “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015” has three components that invest in trauma informed schools and will help provide necessary mental health supports to our most at-risk youth, in an attempt to reduce the alarming numbers of students who attempt, or plan to attempt, suicide.
First, it requires Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) to develop a training curriculum on suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention to be administered to all school based personnel annually. This will equip teachers and school administrators to better identify youth who may be at-risk for suicidal ideation, refer those students to mental health professionals, and improve their mental well-being, which is critical to their success in the classroom.
Second, it requires Local Education Agencies to develop a suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention policy, much like they did with bullying prevention policies for the Bullying Prevention Task Force.
Third, it requires OSSE to develop school climate surveys to be administered to all students and school-based personnel so we can begin to identify if there are school environments that contribute to student stressors. This will allow us to better deploy mental health resources.
School climate surveys measure the social and emotional learning by examining school norms, values, interpersonal relationships, social interaction, organizational processes and structures. Positive school climates are linked to increased academic achievement, increased attendance, increased graduation rates, and decreased bullying and violence.
There are three components of school climate surveys: engagement, safety, and environment. Engagement measures school connectedness, student-student, and student-teacher relationships and whether they are trusting, respectful and caring. Safety has two components: physical and emotional. Physical safety includes violence, threats, exposure to weapons and overall student protection. Emotional safety includes emotional supports for students and staff, including the implementation of programs that address problem solving, anger management and positive communication skills. The environment component of school climate includes the academic, disciplinary, and wellness environments. This means high academic standards, expectations, and supports; a disciplinary environment that is fair and consistently enforced, and often favors restorative justice practices; and a wellness environment that provides mental health supports for students and referrals to professionals as necessary.
Ultimately school climate surveys can help identify improvements needed at schools so we can start to hold schools accountable for making those improvements. There is no current universal school climate survey conducted in the District of Columbia. District of Columbia Public Schools has a school satisfaction survey, and some Public Charter Schools collect limited school climate information, but there is no consistency across systems. The National Academy of Sciences recently released an evaluation of the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007 and one of their recommendations was for greater uniformity in data collection across sectors, which is exactly what School Climate Surveys will do. More importantly, it could help save students’ lives.
The “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015” is one part of Councilmember Grosso’s comprehensive effort to make our education system more responsive to issues of trauma. On June 23, 2015 the Committee on Education held a hearing about the value of investing in Trauma-Informed Schools. At this hearing, the Committee received testimony about best practices, including investing in teacher and staff training, stronger linkages to mental health professionals, and providing environments that strengthens relationships between students, faculty and staff. The Committee also heard compelling testimony about the risk of suicide among students in the District of Columbia. Councilmember Grosso and the Committee on Education will continue to advance trauma-informed approaches to placing D.C. students in the best possible position to succeed.