If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at (888) 568-1112 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255).
Facing criticism from parents, Bangor school officials Wednesday night defended their choice to tell Bangor High School students of a peer’s suicide last month over the school’s intercom — a practice that went against recommendations of mental health professionals.
At a school committee meeting three weeks later, Bangor High School Principal Paul Butler said the school faced a tight timeline for announcing the news of the student’s death the morning of Nov. 20. Reading an announcement over the intercom was the right choice, Butler said, given that news was spreading quickly among students, and the school wanted to stop the spread of misinformation.
“That was the decision I made and I stand by it,” Butler said. “I’m 100 percent confident that we handled that well, that we handled it with compassion and we handled it with as close alignment to those national models that we’ve spoken of as we could get to in that timeline.”
The school-wide announcement went against a key recommendation of mental health professionals with expertise in helping students digest the news of a peer’s suicide — that students find out about a peer’s suicide in person, in small groups, from adults who know them.
A widely recognized tool kit developed by three national organizations to help schools respond to student suicides has expert recommendations for every component of a school’s response to suicide, designed to help students grieve and reduce the risk of more suicides.
The tool kit, developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the Suicide Prevention Resource Center and the Education Development Center, explicitly advises against intercom announcements.
Three parents at Wednesday night’s Bangor School Committee meeting took administrators to task for not adhering to this advice, echoing criticism the city’s school department has already faced from students, other parents and some city officials. In response to a Nov. 29 BDN article that highlighted that criticism, two high school teachers defended the school’s response in a BDN op-ed.
“There are several ways in which the high school’s response to the recent death by suicide violated the state and national guidelines,” said Clare Mundell, a clinical psychologist who has two children at Bangor High School. “I will use the Bangor School Department’s response to the recent death as an example, but this failure in leadership spans many areas and speaks to a systemic failure of leadership.”
In addition to informing students over the intercom, Bangor High School ignored outside offers of help from at least two organizations with mental health expertise, and it did not initially offer parents information on how they could discuss the death with their kids, Mundell noted.
“A very traumatic event took place and was poorly managed,” said parent Marcella Kenny. “I’m compelled to share that I find it quite disheartening that the honesty, integrity and listening to the voices of our community, teachers and students is greatly lacking by the highest level of leadership within the Bangor school system.”
Butler said the classrooms where students were when they heard the intercom announcement served as the expert-recommended small groups. In addition, school officials said they had previously identified students they thought might need extra support, and the school’s guidance counselors, nurse and social workers were available for students in a designated area of the school throughout the day.
Mundell asked the school committee to make a policy for how schools handle a student’s death by suicide.
“I think the point I’d like to make is that we do have policies in place,” Warren Caruso, the committee’s chair, responded. “They’re part of our emergency action plan, which is confidential and all of us have access to. They’re put together with outside parties and best practices, both state and federal levels.”
“While it may be confidential, what I can glean from events is that the policy ignores completely the recommendations of the Department of Education protocols and best practices, which state that no PA announcement be made,” parent Amy Roeder said.
Roeder said she was worried about her son on Nov. 20 after he told her about the intercom announcement.
“He was not one of the students identified as at risk, and I’d like to say that he probably is, and probably should have been,” she said.
Superintendent Betsy Webb addressed criticism the school drew after not accepting help from outside organizations, including the Maine chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“That morning, when I asked Principal Butler, ‘What do you need, what does the crisis team need, what do the teachers need, do you want outside agency support?’ what Principal Butler shared with me was the crisis team had met and that they felt given the circumstances — many students already knew — it was best to go with the internal supports that we have,” Webb said.
Webb said the school department had developed the crisis protocol it followed that day taking national guidance into account. Local experts had vetted it, she said.
“We’ve had Acadia [Hospital] look at our protocol. We’ve had Community Health and Counseling look at our protocol. We’ve had NAMI look at our protocol. We’ve had the Department of Education look at our protocol,” Webb said. “Protocols are important, but there is no one protocol that’s perfect. You have to read each situation.”
However, Jenna Mehnert, executive director of NAMI Maine, said the group had not seen the protocol to which Webb referred. She wrote the superintendent an email that clarified this before Wednesday’s meeting.
“Greg Marley, NAMI Maine’s lead on protocol development, had a conversation with a member of your team, but we never saw nor endorsed a final protocol,” Mehnert wrote in the email. “We were tempered in our public response to the action you elected to take, but I will share with you that internally we were horrified.”
Webb later clarified that the school system’s protocol for handling emergency situations “was reviewed a number of years ago.”