D.C. Education Act First of Its Kind in U.S., Increases Focus on Suicide Prevention
The Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2016 lists specific “at-risk” subgroups, including homeless youth, to focus special attention on during teacher and staff trainings, making it the first law of its kind nationwide.
The act officially took effect in late June. It states that starting this October, teachers and principals must complete a two-hour youth behavioral health training every two years.
The written guidance shall, “model policies for suicide prevention, suicide intervention, and suicide postvention, especially for at-risk youth sub-groups,” according to the act.
Councilmember At-Large David Grosso and the D.C. Committee on Education drafted the legislation based on community members’ testimonies given last year.
“We had a hearing last summer, mid-June, on trauma-informed approaches to schools and schoolwork,” Grosso said. “We had a couple of panels of witnesses that brought these issues at the forefront in their testimonies. They talked about the struggles that a lot of marginalized youth go through in schools. It was deeper than bullying, and a subset of the broader hearing was just on youth suicide.”
The act specifies seven different categories of at-risk youth subgroups, including youth experiencing homelessness, youth in out-of-home settings and youth who identify as LGBTQ. Grosso said that requiring training tailored to these groups is what makes the legislation unique. “The groups are defined in the bill. Very specific, very delineated. There was pushback to not do that, because the more general approach is preferred by schools. But once we saw the data, we were able to recognize the need for special attention to some groups.”
Part of the bill also outlines a 3-year grant from the National Institute of Justice to implement climate surveys in 36 D.C. public and charter schools starting this fall. The Citywide Youth Bullying Prevention Program at the D.C. Office of Human Rights will play a key role in administering these surveys and providing supports to figure out what each individual school needs. The surveys are analyzing the sense of safety, the environment, and engagement at each school.
“We’re measuring not only in students, but in teachers and staff and parents,” said Suzanne Greenfield, Director of the Citywide Youth Bullying Prevention Program. “Because the more positive the climate, the more people feel a sense of safety, a connection to their school, the engagement, the higher they do on pretty much every indicator whether it’s attendance, academic success, as well as social and emotional things.”
Greenfield said that youth who have underlying issues of depression or anxiety and are bullied may be at a higher risk for suicide. Her organization aims to figure out why people bully and how people react when bullying occurs. “The whole focus is on how do we change the behavior of kids who are targeting other kids?” Greenfield said. “We need to know why they do it, the underlying reason, and we need to change the behavior so we can support kids who are being targeted, rather than punish kids, which really does nothing for anybody.”
The training and surveys aim to address school needs in a holistic and comprehensive way. “I hope … that we move to a better culture in our communities so that people don’t get to the point where they want to attempt or think about suicide,” Grosso said. “But the reality is that if we can just save one life, this is huge.”