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Having a mental health crisis? Wake schools say they want to know to help students.

News & Observer - 9/8/2022

Updated with mother of Wendell Middle School student talking about what happened to her son.

Wake County school leaders are urging parents to let their school know if their children are suffering from a mental health crisis — such as a suicide attempt — so they can provide services to the students.

The reality of rising suicide rates hit home on Tuesday with the death of an eighth-grade student at Wendell Middle School from a suicide on campus. Additional counselors were at the school Wednesday to help students and staff.

During a previously scheduled discussion Tuesday on mental health, school officials said it’s important for parents to let health officials contact the district about a student having a mental health crisis. School officials said this will let them develop a plan to help the student transition back to school.

“A lot of the times it has to do with ensuring that parental consent or guardian consent is given,” Paul Koh, assistant superintendent for student support services, told the school board. “If that’s not given then services cannot be provided even though the student may have a need.”

Citing federal education privacy laws, the school district has not provided details about the deceased Wendell Middle student. But Jessica Pendergrass, the mother of the 13-year-old student, said her son was the victim of bullying and tried to harm himself at school last week.

“Unfortunately it just got to the point where bullying overtook him,” Pendergrass said in an interview with ABC11, The News & Observer’s media partner.

Providing school notification

Suicide rates are rising, with studies from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing increasing numbers of teens reporting feeling sad or hopeless since the pandemic.

“We’re seeing more and more young students coming into our emergency rooms with attempted suicide or distress of some sort,” said school board member Roxie Cash, a pharmacist who works at a hospital.

Wake school officials said local hospital emergency rooms and crisis facilities have plans in place to notify Alliance Health if a district student has had a mental health crisis. But the parents must give their consent for Alliance Health, which provides mental health services to the district, to be informed.

Once notified, schools can develop a transition plan for students, said Mark Cowell, Wake’s senior administrator for crisis prevention and intervention.

“We’re providing family support, support for that student and the child the best we can to move forward to keep that child safe and have a healthy life,” Cowell told the board.

But school board member Karen Carter said she’s hearing that the notification process isn’t consistently happening in emergency rooms, leading to some students returning to school without having a transition meeting. She said this can “quickly lead to more issues happening and another spiral.”

“You can’t get to education if there are other barriers, and this is a significant barrier,” Carter said.

Pendergrass said she felt powerless as to where to turn or what to do.

“I wouldn’t wish this on any parent but I think they need to make some serious changes in the school system with how they address mental health, how they address bullying,” Pendergrass told ABC11. “Just make sure that we listen, that we listen to our kids and we know what’s going on and just hug your kids a little tighter.”

Mental health and Leandro

All people who work at schools are trained to look for the risk factors and warning signs of suicide, according to Cowell.

Wake offers on nights and weekends a session called “Keeping Your Child Emotionally Safe and Healthy,” which specifically addresses suicide awareness by teaching parents warning signs.

Wake also hopes to add 10 more schools, for a total of 50, to a school-based mental health pilot program that provides services to students in need. But school board member Jim Martin said that means only 20% of the district’s schools have the program now.

Both Martin and fellow board member Christine Kushner said Tuesday that much more could be done if the state backed the Leandro plan, which includes funding for 900 more nurses, counselors, psychologists and social workers for the state’s public schools.

“We need people in our schools,” Kushner said. “We need adults in the building to support our other adults and to support our students. The last 2 1/2 years have shown us the need and this community, this state must step up and serve our kids and our adults. And it’s not doing it from Jones Street, and it’s maddening to me.”

The Leandro plan was developed by an education consultant as part of a long-running lawsuit by school districts to increase state funding. The North Carolina Supreme Court held a court hearing last week on whether to order the state to fund the Leandro plan.

Kushner, a Democrat, is not running for re-election this year. The mention of the Leandro plan was criticized Tuesday by some of the Republican-backed school board candidates who spoke at the board meeting.

“To use a tragedy to go to statewide politics talking points, you both should be ashamed of yourselves,” said Chad Stall, who is running for the seat Kushner is vacating.

If you or someone you are concerned about is at risk, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by texting or dialing 988. Or call 1-800-273-TALK. The National Alliance of Mental Illness North Carolina also offers virtual support groups and programming across the state.

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