4J School District Wants to Stop ‘Suicide Contagion’ Without Talking About It

Editor’s Note/Content Warning: This article talks about suicide and death. If you, or anyone you know, is considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted at 800-273-8255.

During the March 16 4J School Board meeting, community and board members alike raised concerns regarding mental health access and suicide prevention within the district. 

According to public comments, four students have taken their lives this year. 

Board Chair Judy Newman said that there were ten speakers scheduled for the night, but only nine gave public comments. Five of the speakers addressed the topic of suicide prevention. Mixed into that list were three representatives from organizations already partnered with 4J as resources included in the district’s suicide prevention plan and procedures. 

Passage of 2016’s Oregon House Bill 4075 required the Oregon State Police to set up a tip-line for student safety and ORS 339.341 outlined the rules of the bill.

The 2016 house bill replaced the Department of Justice’s School Safety Hotline established in 2006  to “prevent school violence by enabling students, parents, teachers, school staff, and community members to report information about potential school violence” with a statewide tip line created by the State of Police.

The corresponding ORS outlines and defines the actions that reduce the safety within a school. It includes harassment, bullying, suicide behavior, and violence. The ORS also explains the system requirements the Department of Education is to establish and maintain in order to decrease incidents of violence, threats, harassment, and to prevent suicide using “evidenced-based, multi-tiered practices.”

Two community members gave comments regarding the need for 4J to address these issues head-on. One caller asked the board to do more, to throw all of their resources at it and to get well-qualified volunteers to provide more mental health access to students. The other caller gave the current marks that 4J has earned so far in suicide prevention and told the district that “I think 4J has earned an F.”

Dwight Holton, the executive director of the non-profit Alliance for Life, was the fourth speaker of the night. Alliance for Life aims to prevent substance abuse and suicide in youth and to promote wellness. 

The non-profit provides three programs “relevant to the work” 4J is doing, Holton explained. The organization runs a teen-to-teen crisis youth line, the national suicide prevention lifeline, and partners with the state to provide training and resources to schools as part of their initiative to prevent suicide and promote wellness. 

Holton further explained that 4J is “on the cutting edge of innovation and effectiveness in addressing the challenge of student wellness.” Holton also added that interim superintendent Cydney Vandercar and Angie Meyer, the 4J suicide prevention and risk assessment specialist, have already been working with their tip-lines and experts to provide education to 4J, including “Question, Persuade, and Refer” training.

Safe Oregon is the tipline set up by the OSP created by the 2016 house bill. The tipline is run by the Central Records Divisions Director, Records Officer Coral Smith.

Smith was the sixth caller of the evening. Her hope for speaking was to give the board clarity and education about “what it is we do,” she said.

Smith went on to explain how the Safe Oregon tipline is a contracted call service run by OSP. The aim of the service is to help students “feel safe at school in their communities” by providing them with an anonymous tip line to report any perceived danger. According to the website, schools must sign-up to use the free service. 

Tips can be reported via multiple avenues including online, text, and over the phone. Smith said that “each tip is reviewed by a real person” and that the “tips are categorized as standard, urgent, or critical.”

Critical calls are escalated and, if they pose an immediate threat to safety, they are forwarded to law enforcement. Non-critical tips are delivered to the school’s designated points of contact. 

Currently, 87% of Oregon schools are signed up for the service. Smith says that promotion of the tipline by the school increases the calls received from each school. Smith also told the board that her colleague, Lisa Miller, was signed-up to speak next and would provide the metrics of the calls they receive.

Board member Laural O’Rourke spoke out after Smith. “It is inappropriate that we have contract[ed] people speaking at our public time.” 

Newman responded by saying that “they’re public.” 

“No, they are contracted and it’s being done in a political maneuver and it’s inappropriate,” O’Rourke replied.  “It should have been brought to the board in another way.” For the remainder of the meeting’s public speakers, O’Rourke left and rejoined several times. 

Public speakers must submit a request to speak during a 4J board meeting by 5 p.m. on the Monday before. If more than ten people request to speak 4J gives priority to speakers who have not given public comment previously and the remaining selections are “randomly” made.

“After your request: Up to 10 community members will be scheduled to provide public comment at each meeting, with a 3-minute time limit per speaker. If more than 10 people request to speak, priority will be given to residents who did not provide public comment during the previous two meetings, then the selection of speakers will be determined randomly. District staff will contact you after the request deadline, before the board meeting, to inform you if you have been scheduled to speak and how to attend the meeting.”

Miller, the program analyst for Safe Oregon, was the eighth speaker of the night. She began by giving the total number of calls they have processed through the call center from the 4J district. Since 2017, 111 tips have been reported — mostly from online sources.

A total of 26% of those calls were reports of bullying, harassment, and cyber-bullying while 9%  of the calls were to report drug use including vaping.Only 6% were about suicide idiation.

“My heart hurts for your district. I’m so sorry to hear about the suicides that happened recently, I wasn’t aware,” said Miller.

Miller then continued on to explain that Safe Oregon is an opportunity to provide students with a safe place to report and that, occasionally, they do get life-threatening calls requiring police response that are categorized as critical. 

Those calls average less than 1% of the total calls they have received. “In fact over the last five years Eugene’s only received one,” said Miller.

Vandercar strayed from her normal business script to “honor four precious people that have passed in the last month from our 4J family.” She read a statement about the commonality found in grief.

“Brene Brown credits David Kessler with the following statement: Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint but what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or re-frame it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of the loss without trying to point out the silver lining” said Vandercar. 

Then she added that the 4J cares about students, staff, and families and hopes that spring break allows for everyone to “rest, renew and reset.” She also thanked all those who reached out following the deaths along with the community partners involved in the suicide prevention plan. 

“Thank you to the school staff, suicide prevention team, 4J’s care team, school psychs, social workers, Lane County Behavioral Health, Oregon Health Authority, Cahoots, Roseburg Therapy, Lines for Life, Care Solace, and many more. Thank you for working with us day in and day out to continue to build our supports for kids and staff. I am so proud of the community we live in.”

Safe Oregon and Alliance for Life did not provide information about what happens after tips are called in, categorized as critical, and then reported to law enforcement. Neither did the interim superintendent.

The suicide prevention plan does. It calls for collaboration between parents and legal guardians to select intervention measures,increased monitoring and supervision, and the creation of a “school support or safety plan.”

A screenshot of the 4J Suicide Prevention Plan and Procedures' Intervention Plan Checklist. To document interventions taken, the plan says "provided 24/7 resource numbers, connecting with school/community services, called 9-1-1 for wellness check, mobilized prosocial support systems, identified specific caring adults, promoted communication and coping, and provided treatment referrals. Below that section is one for Student Caregivers that is considerably longer. It includes the aforementioned with the additional "increased" or "constant" supervision, including in bathrooms, restricted access to possible suicide means, arranged transportation, and a phone call to the Department of Human Services.
Page 32 of the 4J School District’s Suicide Prevention Plan and Procedures showing the checklist to document interventions taken and actions included in the student safety plan.

However, there are few school counselors, psychologists, and trained social workers available in schools leading students and families to outside sources where, again, resources are limited.

Board member Maya Rabasa ended her speaking time with a plea for 4J to “do better” both in the terms of helping those involved heal but also in preventing “soul-crushing” losses to future suicides. 

O’Rourke gave an emotionally packed statement during her comments from the board. She believes that the system “only acknowledges part of the whole child.”

“We push them towards those grades, we show them what they need to do to get it done. But we’re missing a part in this. We’re missing the part that shows the child their worth,” said O’Rourke.

She said that she wants to change the way the board looks at and views the circumstances involved when addressing things like mental health and suicide. She wants to be more “proactive instead of reactive” and to stop viewing it as a lack of student discipline and bad behavior. 

“All the people that call, that came in to talk about what they do, that’s all reactive stuff and it’s only if that kid trusts enough to make that phone call, or that parent finds out in time to make that phone call,” O’Rourke said.

She also said she feels that what the system offers now equates to little more than a “dollar store band-aid for a hemorrhage.” O’Rourke wants the district to appropriate money to hire experienced mental health providers and clinical social workers because the current process is traumatizing.

“What we have now with lines for life and some other things mentioned by Cydney, it funnels to PeaceHealth. PeaceHeath’s system is to take a child and remove them from their parents. If they are dealing with suicide ideation they get removed from their parents, taken to a room by themselves, told to strip, must wait hours for a counselor to show up and then when released have nothing. I know this because I faced this with my own child. My child reminds me to this day, who is now an adult, how traumatizing and horrific that experience was.”

The remainder of the meeting was drawn out and tensions escalated once again when it came time for the board to vote on approving healthcare and compensation raises for 4J managers, administrators, professionals and supervisors, also known as MAPS. O’Rourke and two other board members—Rabasa and Gordon Lafer—advocated for more time to ensure equity and inclusion. 

Their efforts were ignored and the increase passed with a 4-3 vote. O’Rourke and Lafer left the meeting before it adjourned as it was clear their concerns were not being heard. 

Following the board meeting, 4J Behavioral Safety Assessment Coordinator Sheri Hoyland sent a video—that was obtained by Double Sided Media—to the board to share “best practices in responding to crisis.” 

Hoyland’s role within 4J is to assess the risk that a student’s behavior may lead to mass violence. This position was created in response to the shootings at Columbine High School as a part of the School Safety Initiative

Both links to learn more about that can be found on 4J’s website, however, a curious reader would be disappointed when taken to a Secret Service 404 not found error code page. 

Hoyland’s job is to assess, monitor, and report. She works hand-in-hand with local law enforcement agencies to help create a “safe” environment in schools. As part of the 4J Safety Team, Hoyland is also involved in the network of “support staff” included in the suicide prevention and postvention plan. 

But the crisis Hoyland refers to in the four-minute-and-fifty-second-long video is COVID-19, not suicide. 

Gaslighting from the start, Hoyland also began with a quote. “You’re only as okay as the people who hold you,” by Dr. Jody Carrington.

Hoyland wanted the board to think about how to “improve psychological safety” because she said “trauma is cumulative” but the “physical crisis” of the pandemic has decreased. She also wanted them to think about how to “empower the senior 4J leadership to best guide staff with a trauma informed well educated approach,” she said.

While failing to recognize the pain and suffering of the board in response to the recent suicides, Hoyland proceeded to tell it how to behave and also labeled democratic discourse as “infighting.”

“Fighting amongst yourselves literally drains the joy and robs the passion from 4J staff. It is incredibly difficult to work for a district that’s not cohesive and that fights amongst themselves, “Hoyland said. “When you speak negatively about our superintendent that is traumatizing to the staff. So instead of helping us through it, you’re adding to the stress load.”

Forgetting that the board selects the superintendent and assesses their behavior, Hoyland pointed out that when in a crisis, she looks to the “hierarchy” to help. 

“When dealing with leadership,” Hoyland said. She said that she helps them “put their lids on,” “make a plan,” and “affirms their physical and psychological safety.” 

She said that she expects them to “be calm” in order to “regulate” a feeling of calm in others and to “assess” the most important needs to “collect a system” and to be “united.” 

“This is how you collect an entire system. This is how to take us from chaos of infighting to a physical and psychological safe staff. We need a united, caring, and kind board, thank you” Hoyland said, ending her statement.

Hoyland intended for the video to be for the board’s eyes only, however, as a public board, emails are considered public record.

The current 4J postvention plan, as defined by ORS 309-027-0200(10), outlines the response procedures following a suicide. It includes 16 steps about how the staff, principals, administrators, and the superintendent should respond, report to, and ways to notify the public and students using predetermined “templates” and “scripts.”

A Care Team is established and assigned to the needs of any “at-risk students and staff” — specifically, those connected to, or with knowledge about, the deceased. 

Scripts are created and given to teachers and staff to use including a response to “line staff,” those responsible for answering telephone calls like “building secretaries.” 

The team also assembles a “Care Room Box and sets up a Care Room,” while gathering “input on concerns from teachers and staff,” maintaining contact with both the director of public safety, Kari Skinner, and administrator throughout the process.”

The aim of the postvention process is to “treat the loss the same as other sudden deaths within the community” and to return the school back to “it’s normal routine” as quickly as possible while providing “grief support.”

The superintendent’s office prepares any media statements following a suicide. 

Currently there have been no communications, press releases, or reports in the local media from the superintendent regarding the suicides involving youth enrolled in 4J.

There have also been no statements released by the Safety Team following the reports of online threats of violence directed towards BIPOC students at both North and South Eugene High Schools this last December. At that time, the district reported on their website that they hired eight new “safety monitors” last fall. 

Campus safety and security monitors are trained and certified as unarmed professionals through the Private Security Program of the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards & Training. Monitors must also be trained in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation, automated external defibrillator use, as well as, QPR and ASIST suicide prevention training, MANDT de-escalation training, and safety assessments.

4J’s website explains that “additional training is planned in issues related to restorative justice, equity, and students with special needs.” However, there is no information on when that training will take place.

Since December, one student has—quietly—been arrested for the threats made at North Eugene High School three months after the incident was reported. On Feb. 24, a student was arrested for “charges of extortion, bias crime in the second degree, and harassment.” 

Due to the person’s age no other identifying information will be released by the Eugene Police Department. 

The Oregon Health Authority reports in their March 16 2022 update that in just January and February alone, suicide-related visits to emergency and urgent-care centers by youth eighteen-and-under has risen drastically, reaching the highest levels reported since May 2019. 

Though Holton claims that the district is on the “cutting edge” of addressing wellness in teens, the numbers show that suicide is still one of the leading causes of death for people between the ages of 10 to 34 in the United States. In Oregon, suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals up to the age of 44. Statewide suicide rates are quite high resulting with a ranking of 43 out of 50 in deaths due to intentional self-harm.

While 4J complies with the requirements of the safety initiatives and corresponding state rules, there appears to be enough evidence to support those voices who say the current prevention plan is not working. 

This is something that the interim superintendent and suicide prevention coordinator, apparently, would rather not talk too much. As the aims of that current plan are to reduce the “suicide contagion” and “return the school environment to its normal routine as soon as possible.” 

A screenshot that provides an overview of the 4J School District's Postvention Procedures. A summary of the text is that the postvention activities "serve to enhance future prevention efforts and save lives." There are Goals listed that include "support the grieving process," "prevent suicide contagion," and "provide long-term surveillance" among others. Some of the listed Cautions include "avoid romanticizing or glorifying event or vilifying victim," "do not eulogize victim or conduct school-based memorial services," and "do not release information in a large assembly or over the intercom" among others.
Postvention Procedures from the current 4J School District’s Suicide Prevention Plan. This page showd the need to reduce the “suicide contagion” and return the school to “its normal routine.” Postvention is defined by OAR 309-027-0200(10), not (8).

Double Sided Media has reached out to see if interim superintendent Vandecar had a statement regarding the recent suicides and received no response.  It appears that the current plan is to remain silent while Hoyland, the behavioral safety assessment coordinator, focuses on assessing the behavior of the board.

Mary Bell

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