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Area superintendents laud mandatory suicide prevention training

Editor's note: This is the first story in a series about suicide prevention and mental health awareness in conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 10 through Sept. 16.

South Dakota educators are taking extra steps this year to ensure they're fostering students' mental health.

On the back of state legislation dubbed the Jason Flatt Act that was passed in 2016 by the state Legislature, South Dakota's teachers are required to receive at least one hour of suicide prevention training to become certified. The act was co-sponsored by a wide-swath of legislators, including then-Rep. Joshua Klumb, R-Mount Vernon, and Reps. Lee Qualm, R-Platte, and Tona Rozum, R-Mitchell, and went into effect July 1.

And although it may seem like a small step in the right direction for mental health awareness, area superintendents agree it's a positive move.

"After a suicide, you hear people say, 'If only I had known, maybe we could have done something,' " Hanson School District Superintendent Jim Bridge said. "It's an awkward and uncomfortable topic to talk about, but I think talking about it beforehand is easier to talk about than it is to talk about after the fact."

Hanson staff participated in the training as a group at the end of the 2016-17 school year in the hopes of curbing statistics that show 16.1 percent of South Dakota high school students have seriously considered suicide and 8.4 percent have made at least one suicide attempt.

The Hanson staff's training was administered through Taylor Funke, crisis support coordinator for the Sioux Falls-based Helpline Center. The training consists of information regarding warning signs that a student may be at risk for suicide and how to refer suicidal youth to the proper professionals. The training also includes state and national statistics regarding youth suicide.

Since 16 years old is the average age for self-inflicted injury hospitalizations and emergency visits, Funke said the training is worthwhile and effective.

Along with the two-hour training that can be completed in person or online, Funke said there are also eight and 16-hour training sessions available.

And, with teachers sometimes spending more time with students than students spend at home, Bridge said any amount of training won't go to waste.

But it's not a one-stop shop to end suicide among youth, Bridge said.

"Sometimes teachers get so caught up and busy doing their job, sometimes it's easy to miss something," Bridge said. "Hopefully it provides an awareness to teachers that are probably right in the trenches with kids that maybe there's something we need to be watching for to help them. If you save one, it's worth it."

Limited by state funding

Without training, Bon Homme Superintendent Mike Elsberry echoed Bridge, saying it's easy for educators to ignore or forget about the issue. Reflecting on a student's suicide in 2015, Elsberry said he's looking forward to his staff's training day, scheduled for late September.

"Throughout the country, you see more and more suicides, unfortunately, and I think everybody needs to be aware that it's a problem," Elsberry said.

But even with the state's educators trained in identifying and assisting struggling students and a counselor on staff, there's potential for more prevention measures, Plankinton Superintendent Steve Randall said.

But that's at the mercy of the state's education funding.

As many rural districts struggle with tight general funds due to the state's education funding formula that bases the amount of money granted by the state on enrollment and student-teacher ratios, Randall said it's impossible to provide any more preventative measures.

"You would love to have that in your school, have a little more control, because once you get the kids outside of school, you don't know how long they'll keep going to a counselor or whoever," Randall said. "There are so many issues kids are dealing with these days that people my age didn't have to deal with as kids, and it's our job as teachers and as people to take care of them."