Student Suicide Prevention: School Districts Not Gathering Data

The majority of school districts in Florida don’t keep a record of suicides among their students. This comes as an unwanted surprise, following the state’s decision to allow districts to spend millions of dollars on mental health improvement. One of the measures was a suicide prevention program whose job was to help students in crisis. Suicide prevention advocates have slammed schools’ failure to track suicides. They believe that data is paramount to aid suicide prevention, and without it, we can’t have a proper assessment of whether prevention programs are bearing fruits.

Vice-Chair of Florida’s Suicide Prevention Coalition, Stephen Roggenbaum, said that having data on student suicides within a district would help the district figure out whether current prevention programs needed to be improved or replaced. Roggenbaum conceded, however, that it was not an easy task to successfully and accurately keep a record of student suicides. One of the obstacles that districts could face while gathering data is when families or student privacy laws prohibit disclosure of whether a student’s death is due to suicide.

Roggenbaum said that tracking had to make sense. There were different aspects they needed to consider, according to him. For instance, whether a death took place on or off campus, during weekdays or on the weekends; during which month it occurred, etc. Those are just some questions that, Roggenbaum added, districts had to deal with when choosing how and what to track.

Youth Suicide Rates

Since 2010, the youth suicide rate has risen by worrying 85%. The USF’s Baker Act Reporting Center revealed these statistics, as one of the bodies that track suicides by county. The state’s Department of Health also has suicide records by age and county. According to their findings, in 2018, 76 underage Floridians took their own lives, which is three more than in 2017.

If school districts did the tracking for themselves, according to tracking advocates, they would be in a better position to figure out suicidal trends and would be quicker to respond. This would be especially helpful if it proved that one school’s students were more incident-prone than another’s.

Roggenbaum said that nobody wanted their school and school district to be known as the one with the most suicide attempts. Journalists in charge of the investigation of the topic have asked all 67 school districts in Florida to give them annual suicide data. Out of the 55 that responded, an unsettling number of them — 45 — said they didn’t track suicides. Some smaller districts claimed that they didn’t track because they couldn’t recall any incident worth tracking. If their words are to be trusted, most districts send out a crisis response team whenever they hear about a student’s death, irrespective of the cause.

Barely Anyone Tracks

Miami-Dade County school district tracks suicides by completing a form which includes the deceased’s name as well as which school they attended. However, they are an exception, with many of the largest school districts not having any process for suicide tracking. For instance, neither Palm Beach County nor Broward County districts have any suicide-related data. The latter had two suicides happen within a year after the mass school shooting in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school. The district’s spokesperson said that the law didn’t require them to track such data nor does the Department of Education.

Mother Weighs In

In 2017, a 17-year-old girl, Hailey Acierno, committed suicide after losing the battle with mental illness. Her mother Lisa said she was surprised at these findings because she believed these numbers were important. She said her faith allowed her to be more at peace, finding solace in thinking that Hailey was no longer suffering. Mother Acierno founded a foundation in her daughter’s honor, which deals with suicide prevention and mental health.

While she could see the clear benefits such data would bring, she was also aware of the fact that it would be difficult to track such data. She said that major problems would occur if parents decided against sharing personal information with schools.

In 2017, the year Hailey died by suicide, another kid from Hailey’s high school killed themselves. The school belongs to Hillsborough County. The district’s spokesperson said that they didn’t keep a record because the incidents happened off the campus.

Students at Pinellas County schools will have several new programs at their disposal that can help during a mental crisis. According to data provided by the state, three youngsters killed themselves in Pinellas County. Director of Student Services, Donna Sicilian, said that they couldn’t access the cause of death to conduct data tracking. Sicilian added that she was unsure whether such data would be helpful.

Acierno said that those numbers might prove to be what was needed for people to grasp the extent of the problem. While she agreed that it wasn’t the numbers that led to Hailey’s death nor that they would bring her daughter back, Acierno said that the data would help schools understand the bigger picture.

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