School reveals student's suicide; Southern High breaks protocol at family request
Capital - 4/25/2019
Anne Arundel County Public Schools shared the news of a Southern High School student death by suicide Tuesday, after a request from the student's family.
It's a rare, if not an unprecedented, announcement by a school system with a policy that discourages public discussion of student suicides.
The family of Dustin Bradshaw, a senior at the school in Harwood, asked school officials to share the cause of death to help other people experiencing similar mental health challenges, said Ryan Voegtlin, director of Student and School Support for Anne Arundel County schools.
A letter was sent to the Southern High community Wednesday and posted on the county schools website.
"The parent was open about sharing that, and it also dispels rumor mills and allows people that may be experiencing suicidal feelings to get assistance," Voegtlin said. "Our first consideration is the family, and what they want shared and what they don't want shared."
Southern High leaders are supporting students with six additional mental health professionals from other county schools and "around the clock care" from the county Mobile Crisis Response team for vulnerable students, like those who knew Bradshaw, Voegtlin said.
The Capital is currently publishing a series of stories on the rising number of incidents of self-harm among students. A story published online Tuesday and in the print edition Wednesday examined youth suicide and the way officials handle a student population with growing mental health concerns.
Bradshaw is at least the second Anne Arundel County Public Schools students who has died by suicide since the beginning of 2019.
The Southern senior was "kind and outgoing," Southern Principal Kathryn Feuerherd wrote in her letter. He was on track to graduate in May and was enrolled in the Center of Applied Technology-South's HVAC program.
Bradshaw's family could not be reached for comment.
School leaders traditionally take a private approach to student suicides. They rely on guidance from the National Association of School Psychologists, the American School Counselor Association and the Anne Arundel County Mobile Crisis Team, among other sources.
Officials also fear contagion, the idea that exposure to suicide can result in an increase of suicidal behaviors.
"We don't want any kind of contagion," Voegtlin said. "Talking about suicide does not cause people to take their lives. It actually can be helpful to people that are thinking about harming themselves because they realize it's okay to talk about that."
"Based on the parents' response we decided to balance that and be direct."
School leaders are encouraging students to be aware of warning signs of suicidal ideation, such as talking about self-harm, comments of worthlessness and thoughts about ending one's life, Voegtlin said.
Changes in physical behavior, loss of interest in things that a person usually enjoys and truancy can also be warning signs.
Teachers and other school-based staff should also be on the lookout; they receive state-mandated training at the beginning of the year to identify signs of suicidal behavior and learn how to report concerns to the appropriate professionals, like counselors and psychologists.
Southern High School has three school counselors and one full-time psychologist, Voegtlin said. Six additional staff from other schools provided extra support Wednesday. More professionals may be staffed at the school throughout the week, as needed.
Two mental health professionals were deployed at CAT-South, as well, Voegtlin said.
Jennifer Sowers, executive director of the Anne Arundel County Parent Coalition, said schools Superintendent George Arlotto has requested a meeting with the organization to discuss solutions. The student advocacy group focuses on issues like bullying and mental health.
Sowers called the letter sent to Southern families about Bradshaw's death "a step in the right direction" to preventing youth suicide.
"When the family is on board with sharing the circumstances, the school should take every opportunity to address student and community concerns and educate on all available resources within our county," she said. "Suicide has to be discussed openly and proactive interventions must be initiated in order to make any meaningful progress in helping our children."
School leaders are continuing to encourage students to reach out to mental health professionals or trusted adults for help.
Students can also use the Anne Arundel County Crisis Warmline at 410-768- 5522, the Student Safety Hotline at 877-676-9854, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK) or Crisis Text Line (text TALK to 741741).
More resources are available at aacps.org/crisisresources.
Credit: By Lauren Lumpkin - firstname.lastname@example.org - twitter.com/lauren_lumps