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In-service focuses on suicide prevention
Burton School District to increase staff awareness
Following the deaths by suicide of two young girls within a 10-day period, the Burton School District changed the plans for Wednesday’s teacher in-service to focus on signs, symptoms and what the district can do to prevent anything like it from happening again.
“Today, our district is making the effort, from this day forward, not to let that happen to another student,” said Sergio Mendoza, alternative education and director of categorical programs.
Mendoza shared a bit about what happened Friday, learning about the death of the student, and praised the district’s administrators, Board of Trustees, teacher’s, students, psychologists, resource officers; and Porterville Police Department for the professional and fast response, and extended availability, to the school and emotional support of the students.
Numerous teachers, aides and other staff sat in the Burton Middle School cafeteria, listening intently to Mendoza as he talked about the next steps.
Also in attendance was John Snavely, Porterville Unified School District’s Superintendent, who said he is also working on similar in-service days for PUSD staff.
The two girls, one 13 and the other 14, both died by suicide. One was a student at Burton Middle School and the other a freshman at Porterville High School.
Speaking Wednesday were Noah Whitaker and Carla Sawyer, both with Tulare Kings Counties Suicide Prevention Task Force, and both survivors of suicide thoughts.
Sawyer shared her personal story, of her son and his best friend dying by suicide within a three-week timeframe, and of another friend also dying by suicide on the four-year anniversary of her son’s death.
“Looking back, there were signs. Everybody should know the warning signs of suicide,” she said. “I know what they are going through and what they have to face the rest of their life,”
Sawyer said she also knows what the families go through following a death by suicide.
Usually, it is not one thing, but several, that can lead to a suicide, she said, and expressed the importance of supporting the students who knew the young girl who died.
“It’s important to support each other. It’s important to support the students,” she said. “How they feel is not going to go away. They’re going to miss her for a long time.”
Sawyer said people are afraid to talk about suicides, many seeing it as a forbidden topic, and stressed the importance of talking about it.
Whitaker also praised the district’s actions.
“This is a wonderful thing the school district is doing — recognizing the life of a student,” he said. “The fact is, the campus is one student short of what it was a week ago.”
Whitaker talked about the special training offered by the Suicide Prevention Task Force on the warning signs of suicide and how to talk to victims who talk about it.
“We’ll work with the school administration to buy programs and find techniques that work best,” he said.
Whitaker’s father died by suicide when he was in high school, he said. The approach to handling the suicide was different back then.
“The approach here today is exactly the opposite. I’m grateful students and staff can come together to discuss it,” Whitaker said.
He also talked about the number of suicides nationwide, and in Tulare and Kings counties.
“Nationwide, there are two suicides for every homicide annually,” he said. “And for the first time, recent data shows that there are more deaths by suicides than car accidents. Even among our troops, more have died by suicide than those who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Whitaker encouraged the group to watch for distraught students or faculty members and to connect them with the proper help.
“You being in this room is incredible. Silence of suicide is being broken and being discussed,” he said. “Today starts that process of looking forward. Information is available and I’ll help you find it.”
Mendoza returned to the microphone, expressing concern about building a strong relationship with the students — reaching out, sharing a smile and shaking hands with them.
“There is a need for training. One of the first things we need to do is offer training to the Burton Middle School staff,” he said. “Statistically, we know it [happens] at a high school level but look how young this person was. Go back and ask yourself, ‘What can we do?’”
Mendoza talked about the District re-implementing the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.
“It is important for us to reach out,” he said.
Before the program ended, a “Make a Difference” video was shown — one that appeared to touch the audience as many could be heard sniffling or seen brushing away at tears.
Following the program, teachers returned to their respective sites to meet with their principals and brainstorm on what needs to be done next.