Update from Joel Stembridge

I am writing to you from United Airlines Flight 528 as I return from workshops at the National Suicide Prevention Conference in Los Angeles.

During the past several months, I have been sorting out how to help steer us through this challenging time. Losing three of our young people is no more fathomable now than when we first heard the sad news. And yet we have all learned much about suicide, and the importance of destigmatizing conversations about mental health.

I come away from the conference secure that our response to date has been in line with best practices throughout the country. We can be very proud of our collective work to support our students and staff as they continue to negotiate high academic standards on one side, and the very human need to heal on the other. Our community’s willingness to talk openly about the issues, and to put resources to work in support of these conversations, is exemplary. And, of course, we have a lot yet to accomplish.

Before providing an update on our next steps, please allow me to share some thoughts about our shared responsibility to create and maintain a supportive, positive school culture. Many of our students and families view the conversation about suicide prevention through the lens of stress, an issue that we have been working on here at South for years. It’s a difficult topic to get a handle on, as stress is experienced on an individual basis. What is stressful for one student is a joy for another. It’s extremely difficult to develop rules and guidelines to mitigate levels of stress. In addition, we are fortunate here in Newton that the overwhelming majority of our students have it within their power to make choices that can directly impact the amount of stress they feel. Making adjustments to classes or activities has consequences, of course, and I do not mean to downplay the difficulty of knowing what to do in a given situation. However, I am emphasizing the importance of having conversations about the individual choices that students and families make about their school and other commitments.

The school has a large role to play here, to be sure. How students feel about their South experience has a direct impact on school culture, and we have a responsibility to understand if our practices negatively impact students. For example, the faculty started the school year by polling our students on a number of school related practices, and selected homework as a key issue for discussion and to develop consistency within and among departments. By the end of the year we will create clear statements of purpose for each department and an understanding of best practices regarding homework.

And we all have a part to play in the creation of our school culture. What are the many ways we (teachers, students, parents) allow an over-emphasis on future enter into our present-day conversations? Do we ask each other about our experiences or our results? How can we better celebrate a love of learning, of trying hard things, of the attempt – rather than merely the accomplishment? I’m not suggesting we exclude one for the other. I am suggesting that we might be out of balance.

As we continue to work together to provide a safe, supportive, positive high school experience for Newton South students, I look forward to strengthening our connections to one another.

Signs of Suicide Program

We will be piloting with our Seniors a nationally recognized research-based program, Signs of Suicide (SOS), and the Brief Screening for Adolescent Depression (BSAD) between May 19th and May 23rd (this program will be piloted at North in the weeks prior). This program has been used by thousands of schools over the past decade. The curriculum includes viewing a video, followed by a discussion period. The goals of the program are straightforward:

• Impress upon teens they can help themselves or a friend by taking the simple step of talking to a responsible adult about their concerns.

• Help students understand that depression is treatable and assess whether or not they may have some symptoms of depression

• Train students in identifying serious depression and potential suicidality in themselves or friends

We will be providing this program for all of our Seniors during an English class. We will be sending a specific e-mail to all senior parents with more information about this program, including the process for opting out. The North PTSO is hosting a parent night to preview and discuss this program on Wednesday, April 16th at 7pm in the Film Lecture Hall, and the South PTSO will host at South on Monday, April 28th at 7 pm in the Auditorium. I am pleased to introduce Ms. Marlene Kenney, a clinical social worker with extensive experience in suicide prevention, who has been hired by the City of Newton to plan and organize the City’s multi-faceted work on suicide prevention. Ms. Kenney will be presenting during the parent information sessions, and parents are welcome to attend either evening.

Please know that we discussed in detail the decision to provide this as a pilot to only our Seniors. As we evaluated the reality of reaching the whole student body in a very short time frame, we decided that providing this educational opportunity to Seniors made the most sense since they will not be here next year. In addition, we felt that the time required to implement the program for the entire school was more than we could provide effectively during a spring that includes MCAS testing, AP testing, and piloting the PARCC, not to mention the realities of finishing up a school year. Once we have assessed the pilot, we will work with experts from the community to develop a comprehensive suicide and mental health awareness plan that meets the needs of all of our students for the fall.

Finally, please remember that there are many resources available to you and your teen throughout the City of Newton. For a complete list of these resources and other programming, please visit the Newton Cares website at www.newtonma.gov/newtoncares

We will continue to update you on our efforts throughout the remainder of the school year.  As always, if you are worried about your child/children, please contact their counselor.

Thank you for your partnership.