Superintendent Gdowski Addresses Recent Student Losses

Friday, January 24, 2020 - 4:30pm
Superintendent Message

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Dear Parents, Guardians, Staff and Community Partners,

I want to address an issue that is deeply impacting our entire Five Star community. A number of families and schools within our community are grieving the sudden and painful loss of their children as we enter the final days of January. Words fall woefully short in describing the depth of the pain and grief that parents, teachers, friends and neighbors have felt following these losses.   

I reach out to you today with the strong belief that our Five Star community can shape a different future in which all of our children navigate our complicated world and emerge as young adults well prepared to embrace life's joys and overcome life's challenges. I've witnessed, over nearly 50 years as a resident and servant to this community, people from diverse generations, cultures and life circumstances come together innumerable times to confront - and address - challenges within our community. The challenge now before us - to nurture, embrace and support our children so that they all grow into healthy adults - will require our Five Star community to come together with renewed focus and sustained commitment.

I am certain, given the value our community has long placed in the development of our children, that we are up to this task. I also realize the path forward will not be easy. The information I share below makes clear that there is no single cause underlying these losses or simple strategies to address them - and that the solution will require help that goes well beyond the work in our schools.

Background Concerning Our Recent Losses
We have lost five children in our community over the past 40 days. They range in age from sixth grade to tenth grade and attended four different schools. The information we’ve received to date indicates that several of these deaths were by suicide. We have worked closely with families, law enforcement and mental health experts in each case to provide support and understand the circumstances surrounding these losses. 

Each of the losses happened under very different circumstances. Suicide is complicated and involves multiple risk factors. It is not simply the result of stress or difficult life situations, and often occurs without the presence of bullying, relationship challenges, substance abuse or academic pressures. 

There is no simple path forward. The adoption of a new bullying curriculum, an expanded focus on the dangers posed by substance abuse, or simply adding more counselors and mental health staff will not alone make suicide a relic of our past. The challenge before us is not one to be solved by our schools in isolation. Solving it will require us to have deeper, more frequent and more honest conversations with our children in our homes, schools, neighborhoods, faith groups and other community settings. It will also require different actions from us all to develop hope, resilience and more effective strategies to help our children manage disappointment, frustration, worry, fear and the other challenges they face now and will continue to encounter in the future.

Our Current Supports and Strategies
It's important that parents, guardians and adults are aware of our strategies for supporting positive social and emotional development of our students and are comfortable in reaching out to school administrators when greater levels of support are needed. Our strategies include the following:

  • We believe that meaningful relationships between staff members and each child are the foundation for all that we do in supporting their comprehensive academic, social and emotional development. During the past two years, we've challenged all staff members to develop relationships with each student based upon their Strengths and Needs - not only in the academic realm but in their social and emotional domains as well. We are committed to knowing each student by Name, Strength and Need letting them know that multiple adults care about them genuinely and deeply, and that we are here for them when they need help in working through challenging times.
  • Enhancing the social and emotional development of our children is a priority in our ELEVATE plan and in our recent investments supported through our 2018 ballot measure. We added school counselors, social workers, psychologists and/or social-emotional learning specialists in each of our elementary, K-8, middle and high schools. These professionals are charged with growing the skills and capacity of all students and providing more intensive support for individual students.
  • We recently received approval from our Board of Education to purchase and implement social-emotional teaching resources designed to align with school-based assessments regarding the needs of their students and the strategies most likely to help in their growth. Those resources are in place already in some schools and will be expanded to all elementary, middle and K-8 schools. We are also evaluating additional instructional resources appropriate for our high schools.
  • These resources complement our use of Riding the Waves, Signs of Suicide and the Sources of Strength suicide prevention program utilized in our schools at various grade levels. These resources focus on developing self-awareness, as well as awareness by peers and staff, of students who may be at risk of self-harm so that we can then complete a more thorough assessment of needs and responsive supports for the child and family.
  • We have a variety of resource guides on our website to assist parents in talking about suicide and mental health needs with their children, and we send out links to helpful resources periodically at the district, school and classroom level when we see heightened needs emerge.

Tips on Connecting with Your Children
I find, through my lens as a parent, that the information in the graphic below is most helpful in giving me specific suggestions for questions and conversation starters with my children on these topics as well as specific ideas for supporting them through difficult times. I strongly encourage you to check it out and to keep it close at hand as it gives tangible ideas to help us all have frequent and meaningful conversations necessary as a first step in assessing what additional support they may need.

Check In

Take a moment to pull your child away from siblings and go on a walk, visit a coffee shop, go to the mall, etc. While engaging in something enjoyable for you both, ask them how they are doing. If they are feeling down, listen (without interruption and judgement) and ask the tough questions.

  • How often would you say you are sad?
  • Can you identify what may be making you feel so much stress right now?
  • Are you feeling suicidal?
  • If anything in the world could be different to make you feel less [stressed, anxious, sad, worried, mad, etc.] what would it be?
  • Finally, remind them that you are here to support them in honoring their emotions and problem-solving.

Mental Health Concern

If you are worried about your child, but it is not related to immediate safety (anxiety, stress, serious friendship issues, etc.) it may be worth exploring some outside supports. Here are some steps to take when trying to find an outside counselor:

  • Contact your health insurance for a list of covered providers
  • Talk with your employer to see if you have access to an Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Ask your child’s primary care physician for referrals/ideas
  • If your family does not have insurance, take a look at some more flexible alternatives such as Community Reach Center.

Safety Concern

If at any point you are worried for your child’s immediate safety (or their friend’s, cousin’s, etc.), please reach out for help from a mental health professional immediately. This help sheet can serve as a guide for navigating the situation.

 

Outreach and Next Steps
We've been reaching out in the past week to other school districts who have experienced similar losses to learn more about the strategies they are using to better support students and the experts they have relied upon for help. Those outreach efforts will continue as will our work with state and national experts in overcoming youth suicide and loss.

We met this week with officials from Broomfield, Adams County, Westminster, Community Reach (our local mental health partner), and law enforcement to assess our challenges, needs, current strategies and opportunities to grow our support for students and families. Another meeting is set with these partners for next week. I expect that this partnership will expand to include the other cities we serve.

I believe our faith community, local nonprofits and community organizations can provide much needed assistance in addressing this challenge, and we will be reaching out to them in the days and weeks ahead to identify ways for them to support our work in this area.

I expect the end result of this outreach will be the expansion of our efforts - not only as a school system, but throughout the entire Five Star community - to enhance our support of our adolescents and families as we work through this nationwide challenge. I'll report back to you when we have concrete and meaningful next steps in place.

Conclusion
Please keep those students, families, loved ones and schools who have lost students - recently or in the past - in your thoughts and prayers. Give your children a long and tight hug this weekend. And please work with us, in the days and weeks ahead, to ensure that every child in our Five Star community knows how deeply loved and important they are to us all.

Sincerely,

Chris Gdowski
Superintendent
Adams 12 Five Star Schools