Two deaths in 10 days
School officials express sadness, concern
The death of two young students, one in middle school and one a freshman in high school, within a 10-day period has school officials reexamining everything they do to see if there are any other resources they can take advantage of or find.
At Burton Middle School, the atmosphere was solemn Friday morning as students arriving at school learned about the death, by suicide, of a classmate Thursday night.
“We are absolutely heart broken for the family who is now trying to find answers to the loss they’ve experienced,” said Gary Mekeel, Burton School District Superintendent. “The absence of a child is a loss to the entire community. We’re losing too many of our children and as a community, we need to pull together and try to find out what we are not recognizing and find out to connect with these kids.”
Mekeel praised the prompt response from the Burton District’s Crisis Management Team — including who was on hand to help students deal with their feelings upon learning the news of their classmate. It is an implementation, he said, he hopes they will not have to put into place again.
In the meantime, the District will meet Monday with school principals and cabinet officers.
“We’re looking at our programs. We’re looking at our resources and seeing if we are doing everything possible to identify the needs of adolescent children,” Mekeel said. “If we discover there are other resources to find and nurture the life of our students, we will look into them.”
Each principal will then pass the information learned at the respective school sites.
“For now, it’s an absolute loss and I can’t imagine what the family is doing. Their loss is our loss as well,” Mekeel said. “We want to see if we can prevent this from happening to another family, and our community.”
Two weeks ago a 15-year-old freshman at Porterville High School took her own life. A vigil was held recently by her friends who also spoke out against bullying.
Though the recent death was not related to bullying, local school districts have programs in place to deal with such issues.
The Burton School District initiated the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in January 2011.
In September, 2012, Sergio Mendoza, director of categorical and alternative programs, reported to the Board on the District’s bullying policy and on the school’s implementation on the Sprigeo Anonymous Online Bully Reporting System, a method for reporting bullying incidents electronically and anonymously.
But Sprigeo is not limited to bullying. Reports of all kinds can be made through the program.
“This in-home abuse, administrator harassment, and suicidal thoughts,” said Aljosha Yosh Novakovic, Sprigeo representative. “We tend to not deal with specific issues, but if there is a red-flag report we go out of our way to help.”
Novakovic said they receive one report per day from Tulare County schools. The reports were immediately re-directed to the administration, he said, and stressed the importance of reminding students that the portal is available to report incidents of all types.
Burton School District instructors and administrators also talk to all middle school and high school students about sharing information on a variety of subjects — from drugs and other abuse to threats of life — with teachers or the administration team on the campus, Mekeel said.
The protocol at the Porterville Unified School District is the same at the middle and high school level.
“Everything is taken serious,” said Kris Wilson, director of PUSD student services. “If a student brings anything up in conversation with another student or a teacher, or if a teacher feels a mood has changed or suspects anything, they will contact the school psychologist immediately. We don’t take anything lightly.”
If there is any concern once a referral is made to a high school counselor or psychologist for a middle school, the parent is the first phone call.
“We never leave the student alone. If a parent can not be reached, we will take the student to one of two crisis centers in Porterville. If the parent comes and picks up the child at school, we will encourage them to take their child to a crisis center,” said Assistant Superintendent Val Staley.
The schools also have pamphlets about “Hope” available in the counselor offices and toll-free crisis numbers posted and has a Character Counts program where the students, at the start of each school year, are talked to about harassments and bullying of any kid at all grade levels.
The District also subscribes to Gaggle Net — an online tool that monitors district e-mails for key words relating to sexual harassment, bullying and profanity. Social media sites are also blocked at school.
In addition, PUSD is also in the final stages of purchasing an online-reporting, confidential-help program; and is working collaborative with Tulare County services on developing ongoing suicide-prevention, staff-development programs to deal with sexual harassment, bullying and suicide.
“If there is a death of any sort, we send our psychologists to the school site and make them available to our students,” Wilson said. “Our psychologists are very well trained and they’ll be there on hand. If there’s a need, they will stay as long as it takes. Our psychologists are amazing.”
Staley said the District received a call from the Burton School District, making them aware of the death.
“Before we even got official confirmation, we already had our psychologists on call and an alert went out to all our teachers asking them to send any students who were having difficulties with it to the office to get assistance for them,” Staley said. “Just because the student does not attend a Porterville [Unified] school doesn’t mean it won’t affect our students. Some of them may have been friends with them.”
According to the Tulare and Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force, there were 139 deaths by suicide from Jan. 1, 2009 to June 30, 2012 in Tulare County, and 32 since Jan. 1, 2012.*
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.
*Story reflects the addition of the 2009-2012 years associated with the number of suicides in Tulare County. Original story had the years missing.