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Last school year, a group of Hamilton County high school students sent out a survey to their peers.

The survey was meant to find out what were the biggest issues facing students in local schools, such as school safety, facilities, bullying or transportation.

With more than 450 students responding, it turned out that mental health is the top issue facing teenagers in Hamilton County.

Rivers Grimes, a senior at East Hamilton School, wasn't surprised.

One of her peers took their own life when Grimes was a sophomore and she has known several students who have struggled, even wanting to drop out, she said.

So Grimes and the other students that make up the Student Voice team for local education advocacy group, UnifiEd, decided to tackle Hamilton County Schools' student suicide prevention policy.

With the help of local mental health practitioners and district leaders, the student team — made up of high school juniors and seniors — worked to draft a new policy, modeled after best practices and robust policies from other districts, that focuses on naming a school suicide prevention coordinator at each school, establishing a community prevention task force and ensuring all staff receive training on what to look for and how to handle concerns about student mental health.

"It was definitely not a surprise to me to see that mental health was such a priority to students," said Sophia Perry, a junior at Red Bank High School. "People think because we are young that we don't have tough things going on and don't have stresses ... but we are handling the same amount of stress that adults are, we are just getting them from different areas."

For children aged 10-14, the suicide rate tripled from 2007-2017, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics' most recent data brief. In 2017, 51 suicides by children aged 10-17 were reported in Tennessee.

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Read the revised Board Policy 6.415 - Student Suicide Prevention

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In December, the community mourned the death of a fourth grader at Orchard Knob Elementary School who took his own life, as Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson and others have been calling for increased supports for students in schools, such as access to school counselors and other behavioral or mental health supports.

Grimes, Perry and Carson Bock, a junior at Signal Mountain Middle/High School, said they recognized that there is a stigma around mental health and many school employees don't necessarily recognize when someone is struggling.

"I had a friend commit suicide my sophomore year and the teachers were like no one knew no one knew what to look for at that point in time," Grimes said.

They also said that mental health issues know no group or gender or school or socioeconomic status. Some students faces trauma at home, they don't know what they will eat next or don't feel safe at school. Other students are under intense pressure to succeed or do well in school.

A district policy for protecting the health and well-being of all students should cover things that take place at school, but also should apply to the entire community and include school responses to suicidal or high-risk behaviors, according to a model district policy from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

The main points that the three students wanted to see in Hamilton County's new policy include establishing a prevention coordinator at each school who can reach out to students reported as high-risk for suicide and establish a relationship with or refer to the school counselor or community agencies, as well a process for how a student can re-enter the school system after a suicide attempt.

SCHOOL BOARD MEETING INFO

The Hamilton County school board will meet at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 18. The meeting will be limited to school board members, essential staff and media in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations. The meeting will be available via livestream on the district’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

 

"This policy is literally life and death for a student within our county," Grimes said. She believes resources should be easily available to students and parents, or even teachers who want to learn more about suicide prevention.

School board member Jenny Hill, of District 6, met with some of the students and said student mental health has been on the top of her mind this year.

"In my role as a school board member and as a parent, I have found myself to be at this confluence of information about student mental health and suicide in particular. Because of that I have been able to learn and better understand the reality that our community faces with our young people," Hill said. "We have to as a community be willing to take this seriously and get uncomfortable talking about it."

Hill was glad that the students met with a team of district leaders including Chief Equity Officer Marsha Drake and Chief of Staff Nakia Towns Edwards.

"I do believe that this revised policy is the result of a very thoughtful process on behalf of students in our community, mental health experts in our community, and our educational experts at the district, so I'm pleased that we would take such a thoughtful approach to addressing some of our most sensitive concerns," Hill said.

The next step for Hill is ensuring that the district implements everything outlined in the policy.

And for Perry, the actual policy the school board will discuss on Thursday isn't the only significant part of this work.

"Having the opportunity to be a student and having people listen to us is probably the most impactful thing I've done this year," she said. "I hope more students will be able to have this opportunity, too."

The school board will vote on revised Board Policy 6.415 - Student Suicide Prevention at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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