Olathe & Southwest Joco

In response to suicides, Johnson County schools work to bolster students’ mental health

For a Week of Giving event at Olathe Northwest High School, some freshmen sculpted Kauffman Stadium out of canned goods that were later donated to the Johnson County Christmas Bureau. Sami Clark (above left) applied finishing touches to “Can-sas City Royals” with assistance from Ryan Burnett (left) and Jackson Thayer.
For a Week of Giving event at Olathe Northwest High School, some freshmen sculpted Kauffman Stadium out of canned goods that were later donated to the Johnson County Christmas Bureau. Sami Clark (above left) applied finishing touches to “Can-sas City Royals” with assistance from Ryan Burnett (left) and Jackson Thayer. Special to The Star

A handful of teenage girls sat on the cafeteria floor, surrounded by a rainbow of vegetable and soup cans. They laughed and chatted as they pieced together a Campbell’s soup version of Snoopy’s doghouse, putting aside bright green cans of asparagus, beans and peas to be used as surrounding grass.

Faint cheers erupted from down the hallway, the echoed remnants of a dodgeball tournament taking place in the crowded gymnasium.

Surveying the scene, Student Council President Brant Pitcairn sat down at a table in Olathe Northwest High School’s cafeteria and offered a bittersweet smile.

The relaxed, joyful demeanor displayed at Olathe Northwest that drizzling Wednesday evening in November was typical for the close-knit school, he said. The student body feels like a family, and the kids look out for one another and have a genuine respect for teachers and staff.

But one year before, during that same week, the Ravens’ world had shattered into grief and confusion.

Northwest classmates Ciara Webb and Cady Housh, both beautiful and well-liked, had committed suicide on Nov. 7 and Nov. 9, respectively. The tragedies made headlines across the globe.

“The day we found out, it was a chaotic mess around here,” Pitcairn said, gesturing to the open space of the cafeteria. “Kids were crying and hugging in the hallways. It changed us as a school.”

The two suicides also jolted Olathe School District officials.

For a few years before the suicides, the district had been taking steps to improve the mental health of its students by adding counseling curriculum on all levels and creating small counseling groups for students dealing with grief, stress or abuse.

When news of the Northwest suicides broke, however, administrators realized more action needed to be taken, fast. And they acted.

▪ The district is working toward posting a clinical psychologist at every high school, with the help of private community partnerships.

▪ The district is intensifying training to teachers and staff about the signs of suicide and mental illness. They are also working on bringing parents into the discussion.

▪ The district in recent years also has beefed up its counseling and anti-bullying efforts with elementary school children to help them build a strong mental health foundation.

It’s about focusing on the student as a whole, said Erin Dugan, assistant superintendent for Olathe Public Schools. If you don’t address mental health issues, the student can’t focus on academics.

“We need to break through the silence of suicides and mental illnesses, because if we look in the other direction, we’re not doing our job as educators,” said Dugan. “We need to help students seek help when they’re feeling despair. It’s important for them to realize they’re not alone and they can reach out to an adult to figure things out.”

The mental health initiative is resonating throughout the district.

For Olathe Northwest, the spirit of turning a tragedy into a way of helping others came naturally. That Wednesday night in November was part of a weeklong celebration, to honor the memory of Webb and Housh and also promote community service.

The school’s Week of Giving was held from Nov. 9 to Nov. 13, which resulted in more than 350 people donating blood and students collecting more than 4,300 cans of food for the Johnson County Christmas Bureau.

On each day of the week, a five-minute video was shown, highlighting a student or staff member who serves the community. Students and staff also passed out positive affirmation stickers to one another, which boasted compliments like “friendly” or “hard-working.”

On Wednesday night, the school was open for the dodgeball tournament, the canned-good structure contest and a mixer with a DJ.

“In light of last year, we knew it was going to be a very difficult week for our kids,” said Kathi Hilliard, assistant principal and activities director for Olathe Northwest. “We wanted an act that had purpose and would benefit the community.”

The five days of events were met with enthusiasm by many Ravens, who were grateful for the uplifting message during a week tinged with sadness.

“It’s been a rough year and we’re still recovering,” said Bessie Bauman, a junior, as she helped construct the Snoopy house out of soup cans. “These activities have been uniting us, which is healing in a way. The positivity in the hallways has been contagious because students are really getting into the spirit.”

The Northwest suicides were a reality check for students at Olathe South High School, too, especially for members of the anti-bullying and anti-suicide group, BRAVE — Bystanders Rising Against Violence Everywhere.

BRAVE includes around 30 members who range from freshmen to seniors. They perform skits and lead group discussions about bullying at the district’s middle schools. They also perform a suicide prevention assembly, titled “I Choose to Live,” for their high school peers.

Depression hits a lot of kids, many who are intelligent and sensitive to stress, said Helen Hardgree, the group’s faculty sponsor. She initiated the BRAVE group at South when she joined the staff a couple years ago.

The group’s purpose is to encourage students to seek help if they are being bullied, witness bullying or feel suicidal.

Group members say the presentations have been making a difference, with many middle-schoolers openly discussing bullying incidents with them and some high school students reaching out to school counselors after seeing the “I Choose to Live” presentation.

“Before BRAVE, I never talked to my parents about suicide,” Carley Eschliman, a senior in the group. “Now, I tell them about the statistics I’ve learned while we’re sitting around the dinner table and it feels comfortable, not awkward.”

Every time she hears about a teenage suicide, her heart breaks. But she’s not surprised.

“Bullying is now twenty-four seven,” Eschliman said. “People used to go home and that was a refuge, but now … all you have to do is look at your phone to see cruel Instagram comments. Plus, on top of social media, a lot of teenagers have family problems and academic pressure thrown at them, and it becomes completely overwhelming.”

Dugan agrees it’s a perfect storm that needs to be addressed. She’s thankful for programs like BRAVE that are tackling mental health issues head on.

“What we’re seeing is a sense of hopelessness with kids who can’t figure out how to dig themselves out of situations,” she said. “And hopelessness is an awful spiral, and it is an indication of mental illness. We want to reach these kids early and teach them to advocate for themselves, to reach out to an adult to figure things out.”

The district has started putting clinical psychologists in each high school.

Last school year, a behavioral therapist funded by Kids TLC was placed at Olathe East High School part-time to help students deal one-on-one with intricate mental health problems.

In August, clinical psychologist Rhiannon Moore was stationed at Olathe North High School, with some time also spent at Santa Fe Trail Middle School.

Her position is co-funded by the Health Partnership Clinic in Olathe and the Olathe Public Schools Foundation.

Moore has seen more than 200 students so far and regularly sees around 30. She has intensive therapy sessions with kids struggling with everything from depression to other mental illnesses, upon parental consent. She also holds family therapy sessions. Insurance is not required.

When offered the position at Olathe North, Moore jumped at the opportunity to be part of what she considers a historic moment in education.

“Sometimes families can’t seek out mental health treatment for their kids because of a lack of transportation or a lack of insurance, so this gives them that opportunity,” she said. “We start to see a lot of mental illnesses and behavioral problems develop in adolescence, so the earlier we are able to catch it, the better it will be for that person in the long run.”

Amber Giron, chief behavioral health officer for the Health Partnership Clinic, thinks having a clinical psychologist at every high school in Olathe is a phenomenal idea.

“It is beyond amazing to see a school district become aware of this problem and use their power to make significant changes in how mental health is addressed,” Giron said. “To be able to provide this kind of personal care on site for students is a huge deal.”

So far, the school district has been impressed with the success at North.

“The outcome has been tremendous,” Dugan said. “We honestly believe Dr. Moore has saved some lives.”

This month, a clinical psychologist will also start at Olathe Northwest, the result of a partnership with Responsive Centers for Psychology & Learning in Leawood.

The district hopes to secure a clinical psychologist for Olathe South at some point, but it needs to find another community partnership to fund the position.

“We are lucky to be in a community that wants to help the schools and is willing to look at things differently,” Dugan said. “Sustaining this idea year after year, financially, will take some effort, but we’re positive we’re heading in the right direction.”

Olathe isn’t the only school district in Johnson County taking mental health out of the shadows.

Six years ago, the Blue Valley School District experienced a number of student suicides over 18 months. As a result, a suicide prevention task force was created in 2011 to strengthen prevention efforts and to better respond to students having suicidal thoughts. The task force was made up of teachers, administrators, psychologists and school counselors.

From that effort came the adoption of a new suicide prevention curriculum for students and annual training for district school counselors and school psychologists.

“As we examined the records of students who had died by suicide, we saw that a drop in attendance the semester before their death was one of the only commonalities,” said Mark Schmidt, executive director of student services for Blue Valley. “As a result, the district began to pay closer attention to attendance and implemented programs… that address school connectedness, substance abuse and relationships. We have seen an improvement in grades and attendance for students who have completed the course.”

The task force also developed a specific protocol to use when a student expresses thoughts of suicide, he said. The schools use the protocol to help with student intervention and to partner with families and mental health facilities to help the student.

The district has also brought in prominent speakers, including nationally known Kevin Hines, to speak about suicide prevention, and it added an entire section devoted to student well-being on its website.

“We need to break down the stigma of mental illness and have an honest conversation about it,” Schmidt said. “Because of the stigma, many people with mental health concerns try to hide the issues. For example, a person is likely to be very open and share if they have a physical health problem, but if they can’t get out of bed because of depression, they’re not likely to share or ask for help. If we can understand where a student is at in life, we can help that young person do their best in school.”

Blue Valley has also incorporated new counseling curriculum in its schools, starting with resiliency for elementary school students. Lessons include problem solving and how to bounce back from disappointment. A new Signs of Suicide program in middle and high schools helps students recognize signs of suicide and teaches students how to get help.

The Shawnee Mission School District also is taking some steps to help students. The district last year got a $28,000 grant from the Healthcare Foundation of Greater Kansas City to conduct Youth Mental Health First Aid training for staff at four Title I schools, according to spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal. And like Blue Valley, the district brought Kevin Hines to speak at its high schools.

For the past six years, the Olathe School District has been introducing new counseling curricula as well.

This spring, the district will pilot the HOPE curriculum in its elementary and middle schools, which focuses on perseverance and giving students tools to handle life’s challenges.

Also this year, the district is implementing Everyone Struggles in its middle schools. The program is aimed at helping students feel comfortable talking about mental illness.

One of the most successful changes the district implemented five years ago is Steps to Respect, a bullying prevention program, taught at the elementary schools.

The Steps to Respect curriculum, intended for third- to fifth-graders, teaches students to recognize, refuse and report bullying. The program helps students resolve conflict and develop problem-solving skills.

School counselor Rita Hastings, who has worked at Fairview Elementary School for 20 years, said she sees the curriculum as beneficial in the long run.

“I look at elementary school as building the foundational skills, such as math, reading and writing, which students will lean on for the rest of their education,” she said. “Building sound mental health should be part of that foundation, because once you learn to identify and manage emotions and deal with conflict, you’ll have the tools you need to help you for years to come.”

And young children have more to be stressed about than people might think, she said.

“Elementary school students are worried about fitting in and making friends and some may experience a change in family structure at home, such as divorce,” Hastings said. “Kids are also more aware now of scary events happening in the news, such as terrorism attacks or mass shootings. They’re worried about their physical safety, and it takes an emotional toll on them.”

One of the best ways teachers and parents can help ease that anxiety is simply by listening to kids’ concerns, she said. When a student realizes an adult cares about what they’re saying, they’re more likely to turn to an adult whenever they need help in the future.

One way the Olathe School District hopes to strengthen the bond between students and adults is by hosting a parent seminar about mental health issues in adolescents in February.

The event will focus on prevention and treatment, will feature guest speakers and support groups and will have school counselors and psychologists on hand to answer questions.

The district hopes it will become an annual event.

And everyone involved with the district’s mental health initiative hopes their efforts will have a ripple effect, encouraging other school districts to strengthen their tactics as well.

After all, if the district’s efforts save at least one student’s life, the time and energy of each change is worth it, said Cindy VonFeldt, the executive director of the Olathe Public Schools Foundation.

“Helping students feel confident enough to talk with adults when they’re feeling desperate is an investment that pays off,” she said. “A healthy school district equals a healthy community, because when schools do well, it improves property values and one day, those students become our employees as well. Helping students overcome severe stress and mental illness is invaluable to everyone.”

Jennifer Bhargava: bhargava913@gmail.com