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EDITORIAL: Schools need help, policies on youth suicide

EDITORIAL: Schools need help, policies on youth suicide

New legislation would strengthen efforts to head off suicides before they happen
EDITORIAL: Schools need help, policies on youth suicide
Photographer: Shutterstock

Mya Vizcarrondo-Rios was an honor student with perfect attendance.

Shortly after she began attending Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx in September 2017, she began experiencing bullying and other harassment, including being forced to perform sexual acts on other students.

During the five months of abuse, Mya experienced “severe emotional pain and depression.”

Shortly after 2 p.m. on Feb. 28, 2018, she walked up to the roof of her apartment building, still wearing her backpack from school, and jumped 34 stories to her death.

One day in 2014, Omotayo Adeoye was humiliated by her teacher in front of her classmates for cheating on a German language quiz.

She asked to excuse herself from class to go to the bathroom. Instead, she left school, walked 25 blocks to the edge of the Hudson River, placed her school ID on some rocks, and jumped in.

She floated near the surface for a while until she forced herself under before the frantic fishermen nearby could reach her.

On the test she had been taking that day, the 17-year-old had written, “I just want to go away forever on the bottom of the river.”

In 2015, South Glens Falls middle school student Jacobe Taras left a note on a sheet of lined notebook paper.

“Dear Mom and Dad, I’m sorry but I can not live anymore. I just can’t deal with all the bullies, being called gay … being told to go kill myself. I’m also done with being pushed, punched, tripped.”

He concluded his letter with, “I LOVE YOU” before shooting himself with his father’s shotgun.

He was 12 years old.

These are just three stories out of hundreds about kids in New York and throughout the country who were so traumatized, stigmatized and tormented that they couldn’t wait another minute until the trauma passed, who were so blinded by pain and hopelessness that they couldn’t see the long futures they had in front of them.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 17.4 percent of New York high school students — or about one out of every six — have thought about suicide. Another 10.1 percent — about one of 10 students — have attempted it. 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those ages 10-24 in the U.S. and the state.

Anti-bullying efforts in schools over the years have helped, but not enough. And while one certainly can’t place all the blame for student suicides on schools, it’s no secret that kids spend much of their time there, and it’s where many experience the difficulties and pressures that compel them to end their lives.

A bill pending in the Legislature, the Student Suicide Prevention Act (A9032/S7138), would give schools the resources to provide mental health assistance for these kids.

Right now, more than a third of school districts in the state lack a comprehensive suicide prevention policy, and only 2% have policies that specifically address LGBTQ students, according to the bill’s sponsors, one of whom, Sen. Brad Hoylman, is openly gay.

The legislation, which would follow the best practices of the Model School Policy on Suicide Prevention, would require school districts serving students in grades 7-12 to adopt new policies on support, intervention and suicide prevention. A special emphasis would be placed on addressing the needs of higher-risk groups for suicide, such as LGBTQ kids, whose attempted-suicide rate is close to 40 percent.

The legislation states in part that school personnel must be supported by clear policies and procedures to eliminate confusion over educator roles, and must be equipped with the tools to help them respond to suicides and attempted suicides.

That includes providing guidance and training for dealing with potential causes of suicide, and learning how to recognize the signs of trauma caused by bullying, at-home issues, disabilities, sexual orientation, homelessness, physical and sexual abuse and other issues.

The policies would have to be reviewed after five years.

The legislation doesn’t specifically mention how this initiative would be funded or how much it would cost.

But it would be unfair for the state to impose such an important mandate without providing funding or assistance from the state Education Department to help districts implement it.

Suicide among our youth isn’t just one school district’s problem. It’s not just one family’s problem or one parent’s problem.

It’s society’s problem, and we all have an obligation to support solutions with policy and tax dollars.

The consequences of doing nothing? — Go back to the top of this editorial and start reading again.

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