Tempe Union first in suicide prevention training

In the aftermath of defeat, state Sen. Sean Bowie found consolation in the strength of a grassroots effort in the East Valley to train teachers on how to recognize the early warning signs of teen suicide.

The legislature in April defeated the Ahwatukee Democrat’s bill to require suicide prevention training statewide.

 He hoped local school districts would do it themselves without a state mandate.

That’s exactly what happened in Bowie’s own district, with the Tempe Unified High School District becoming the first district in the state to train all employees, not only teachers, in recognizing the warning signs.

A graduate of a Tempe Union high school, Bowie represents parts of Tempe, Mesa and Chandler.

The Tempe Union effort wasn’t an easy accomplishment.

Nikki Kontz, clinical director of Teen Lifeline, a suicide prevention organization, teamed with a group of other mental health providers to train 805 district employees a two-hour session on Wednesday afternoon.

The employees work at six of the seven high schools in the district, which includes schools in Ahwatukee, Tempe and Chandler.

Corona del Sol High School, a suicide hotspot in the past, was not included because employees received similar suicide prevention training late in the last school year.

“They are the first district to do this district-wide,’’ Kontz said. “This is Suicide Prevention Month. What bigger message can you send than to give suicide prevention training district wide?’’

She said Teen Lifeline, which works to prevent teen suicide statewide, hopes Tempe Union becomes an example for other districts to emulate.

“Everyone is important. It doesn’t matter what role you have. You are all here to love and support these kids,’’ Kontz said. “They don’t have to do the intervention. They are the eyes and the ears of the campus.’’

She said a cafeteria worker or a school bus driver might overhear students talking about a fellow student in a mental health crisis, or a janitor might find a discarded piece of paper indicating a student was planning to kill himself or herself.

Teen Lifeline operates a hotline, using fellow teens to counsel their peers. The hotline number, listed on student identification cards in Tempe Union and several other East Valley districts, is 602-248-8336.

Jennifer Liewer, a Tempe Union spokeswoman, said the focus is on helping today’s students. The district has suffered the heartbreaking series of suicides in the past three years.

 Teachers “see students struggling and they want to help them,’’ Liewer said. “They are the ones who see them in the classroom day in and day out. We knew it was a problem. It’s about getting the tools in their hands.’’

“They see them every day and it’s intimidating if you don’t know what to say and what to look for,’’ Liewer said. “Kids whose brains are hurting aren’t going to learn well.’’

Among the leaders of the drive for training was Lorie Warnock, a Mountain Pointe High School English teacher whose son, Mitchell, was a Corona student who took his own life in October 2016.

Warnick praised retired Superintendent Kenneth Baca for getting the effort moving forward and his replacement, Superintendent Kevin Mendivil, for making it happen at no additional cost to the district.

Mendivil “was adamant that social and emotional wellness wasn’t just fluff,’’ Warnock said.

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