N.H. Legislature Considers Bill To Mandate Suicide Prevention Training in Schools

Apr 3, 2019

Dean Cascadden, Superintendent of Schools for the Bow and Dunbarton school district, SAU67.
Credit Peter Biello/NHPR

bill before the New Hampshire Legislature this session would require all school districts to provide suicide prevention training to faculty, staff, and volunteers. The bill has already passed the Senate and will move onto the House next week. 

A survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New Hampshire in 2014 found that most districts had no suicide prevention policy in place.

In Bow, school officials have come up with their own prevention policy after a student died by suicide in 2009.  NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with Bow-Dunbarton superintendent Dean Cascadden about what has happened since 2009. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.  What happened in 2009, and what was the aftermath?  

We had a very intense event that happened in January of 2009. We had an 8th grade student who committed suicide. And we were just not prepared at all to deal with what was happening.  We thought we were prepared. We had a response team ready to come in the next day and meet with the students and we were going to control this event. And we just were not prepared to deal with the aftermath of the event in the era of social media.

We learned a ton. And just this year we had the parents come back to us because they have started their own foundation called Reach1Teach1Love1, and they came in and we just talked. We talked about what happened with the incident, our response, they kind of said to us you know you did the best you could. But we know a lot more now. And I think we're ready to handle things a little bit better.

So following that incident there were things that you learned that could be done before an event happens, during an event, and then after an event. What were some of those before during and after things that you instituted after this?

You can't plan for what's going to happen. You plan to plan. So your protocols are like these are the people that you contact. These are the people who get together and meet. So every building has a response team.  And usually they're administrators, nurses, social workers, counselors, and those sort of people. We now develop kind of a manual of some standard practices, sort of like a menu to choose from of things you could do. They have to decide things like are we going to make an announcement? If we do make an announcement, what is that going to say? Are we going to designate a gathering spot? So all of those sort of kind of how you're going to walk through, you've thought in advance, and you have a way to make those decisions that isn't just one person being bombarded with it.

Is suicide, in general, on the minds of people here at this school -- teachers, parents, students?

Absolutely. It's definitely on the minds of our staff. I would say that at least once a month, if not more, we are doing some sort of evaluation of a student who has said something or so forth.

What do you think of the proposed legislation that mandates this kind of training?

It's hard because I absolutely agree in principle with what's going on. How can you say no? The issue for me is compliance versus culture. When you pass a law, me as a superintendent, I now have to deal with compliance. I have to say okay how do I deliver that training in such a way that I can log that training. It takes time it takes energy, and you can do it. The issue isn't the training, the issue isn't the protocols. To prevent it, you have to deal with mental illness, you have to deal with culture and connection, and you have to create a system where they feel that they're loved. And my job as superintendent is to make sure that that happens.

What frustrates you as an educator about trying to handle this issue of suicide?

The thing that frustrates me the most is that if there's any issue in society that we have a concern about we say oh, well the schools will handle it. And in New Hampshire, because of the way the school funding is set up, oftentimes they're like well the local school district will write a policy. And you look at the laws that they pass -- it's always zero fiscal impact. There's always a fiscal impact because if I'm choosing to train on bullying, I'm choosing to train on suicide. I'm not choosing to do something else. And you know the issue for us is we can only do so much in schools. Let's put this on the schools, schools can do this. And you know what, we will because we love kids, and we will because it's the right thing to do. But we're schools. Our primary mission should be academic. And my biggest frustration is there isn't the social services outside of school. Like if you send a kid out for an evaluation and it comes back that the child needs more help than we can provide in school, that's just not there. You know where's that child going to go. There's not much. And I think we need to look at this as a whole society about how we handle this issue and not just say okay the schools will solve the problem. We'll do it because it's the right thing to do. But we're only part of the solution.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

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