CONCORD — As school administrators prepare for the year ahead, some will have to figure out how to implement a new training requirement around suicide prevention.
The law Gov. Chris Sununu signed on Aug. 2 requires local districts to develop suicide prevention policies that include two hours of training for school staff.
The new requirement isn’t so new for a lot of schools, including Concord High School. Teachers there got training in suicide prevention in 2018 from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, as did educational assistants, said assistant superintendent Donna Palley. She said Concord has also trained a group of students.
“One of the really great aspects of this training is that it’s sustainable,” Palley said.
The 2018 training produced a crop of people who ran more training classes during the 2018-19 school year. The course in suicide prevention will continue to be part of teachers’ professional development, Palley said.
The initial training was paid for by a state grant, Palley said. Schools in Laconia, Rochester and Concord all got state funding for five years of training around different aspects of student health and well-being.
The key to keeping the training going, without outside assistance, has been a core group of staff who are passionate about the work, Palley said.
“We have people on the ground who are really committed to this,” she said.
Versions of the newly mandated training have already been rolled out in more than 60 school districts, said Elaine de Mello of the New Hampshire chapter of the national Alliance on Mental Illness. De Mello is the supervisor of training and prevention services, and helped Concord and other New Hampshire schools organize their training programs.
De Mello said the training is meant to reach a large number of people who interact with students — cafeteria workers and bus drivers, as well as classroom staff. Students might confide in someone who is not a teacher, de Mello said, so it’s important all school workers know what to do.
“The cafeteria staff were very appreciative,” de Mello said of one school. She said workers said they hear a lot — students say things in the lunch line that they might not say in the classroom.
De Mello said the training covers what to do if a student is at risk, and what adults can do after a child attempts suicide, how to bring a child gently back into the school after a suicide attempt, and what to do after a suicide.
The alliance program trains school staff to deliver the training, which de Mello said means the program can be self-sustaining, and does not require continued spending
“As long as the trainers are training pretty regularly, they can keep training,” de Mello said. The alliance does not charge school staff to keep delivering suicide prevention training.
Funding is a challenge for many districts, according to de Mello. She said she has seen districts pulling together state and federal grants to pay for suicide prevention training, as well as using local public health organizations to deliver mental health education.
De Mello said the alliance is available for technical assistance, and can support in high risk-situations, such as after a suicide.
“We don’t expect the schools to do this alone,” she said. “We see suicide as a public health issue: It belongs to the community.”
The law Sununu signed was modeled on the Jason Flatt Act, first passed in the Tennessee state legislature after the 1997 suicide of teenager Jason Flatt.
Flatt’s father, Clark Flatt, runs a foundation focused on suicide prevention. He has worked to help legislators in several states pass versions of the the act.
Flatt appreciates that the New Hampshire law mandates training for all educators, and said he thinks the goals set out in the law are achievable. But he said there might not be sufficient structures to make sure local districts are documenting all the training.
Other states track training through state departments of education, Flatt said.
He said he is concerned that making local districts and charter schools track the required training might be too burdensome, especially for small districts and charters.
He added that while there are mechanisms to document what professional development licensed teachers participate in, there is not a similar way to track professional development for other school staff and contractors.
“If we pass a bill we can’t document, and then a school district gets in issues because of that, we run the risk of people saying the bill is no good,” Flatt said.