The mother of a Tempe Union High School student who took his life was among those who urged the Chandler Unified School District Governing Board to do more to address the mental health crisis that has led to four students’ suicides since May.
“The superintendent of Tempe Union High School District meets with student reps from each of his schools to see what he is not seeing from his metaphorical lifeguard chair,” said Lorie Warnock.
Her son, Mitch, was a senior at Corona del Sol High School when he died in 2016.
“He knows his vantage point of the water is different from theirs inside the water,” Warnock said of Tempe Union Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil. “For that reason, he makes time to listen to his students and their experience of the ocean in real time. Why won’t the head lifeguards who manage the pools in this district come down from their chairs to meet their kids in the water?”
Warnock was one of four speakers to address the mental health crisis during the public comments portion of the Sept. 14 board meeting.
“These kids are coming to you, they’re coming to the top, and they’re begging the top to help change the culture,” said Karianna Blanchard, a founding member of Parents for Suicide Prevention.
Both women said the district needs to listen to the students who have been coming to their meetings since June.
“It is said that a district of this size is a big ship to turn around,” Warnock said. “However, our group and other moms were here in 2018, laying out the same issues related to suicide prevention.
“The term ‘evidence-based’ is used like an educational news-speak weapon against students and community members wishing to speak with district administrators. Here is an evidence-based fact: Med students are now trained to listen to their patients’ stories. They have learned that listening to stories saves lives.”
Warnock did credit CUSD for doing more training in mental health awareness than the state requires.
“We all learned the big ships can be turned,” Blanchard said. “COVID showed us that. Do our adults have permission and the ability to say, ‘I want to take a minute because I can see you and I want to talk to you. And I want to see if you’re OK,’ because somewhere there’s a disconnect between in this room, and in this building, and all of our other buildings.”
“We are urging a more preventative and proactive approach to suicide and mental health,” said Wendy DeTata, a member of the Chandler Youth Wellbeing Coalition. “We don’t expect the board and the district to do this alone. We are hoping for more transparency and commitment to mark partnerships.”
One student who has become a regular speaker complimented the District for one step it has taken, but said more needs to be done.
“Programs have been implemented for eighth and 10th graders, which is wonderful, and I’m very grateful for that,” said Kailani Higgins, a sophomore at Arizona College Prep High School. “But unfortunately, thoughts like these don’t end after sophomore year. When we end this conversation, we increase the likelihood that more kids will end their lives.”
District officials took exception to news stories in the SanTan Sun News and criticized the newspaper for misrepresenting their position.
“There was some misrepresentation on what was said and how that context was taken as well,” said Superintendent Frank Narducci. “There is no intention that suicide should not be talked about in our district, and that we should look at every remedy we possibly can to help students at their point of need at the point of discovery.”
Narducci and Board Member Lara Bruner both spoke about a special film being presented at an event this Wednesday, Sept. 21. It is put on by teen mental health advocate Katey McPherson of Chandler and being co-sponsored by the Chandler Education Foundation.
The film is “My Ascension” and details a young woman’s suicide attempt and the events that led to it. McPherson will lead a panel discussion after the film.
“The film screening is not a District partnership, but we invited them and I’m glad they are promoting it,” said Riana Alexander, one of the co-founders of AZ Students for Mental Health and a senior at Chandler High School. “I don’t see many signs that they are putting the focus they need to on mental health. The only person we have been working with is Natasha Davis (CUSD’s prevention coordinator).”
A CUSD spokesperson was asked for a list of the events the district has planned or scheduled that put a focus on teen suicide and mental health.
The district has 117 employees who in one way or another focus on the mental well-being of students, the spokeswoman said. That includes 92 counselors, 21 social workers and four administrators.
CUSD trained more than 800 staff in mental health first aid last year, and 700 support staff were trained in safe talk this year. More than 150 mental health professionals were also trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.
CUSD has added Lifeline hotline numbers to the back of student IDs and put hotline numbers on school buses. It has increased the number of mental health clubs and added wellness/mindfulness rooms. It also plans a “parent university” to help parents understand the issues.
The district gives prevention lessons from kindergarten through sixth grade, and specialized lessons in the seventh, eighth, 10th and 11th grades. The ASU mental health toolkit is available for all high school students.
There are other programs as well.
“CUSD is dedicated to keeping everyone well,” the district said in a statement. “Parents/guardians/stakeholders, you are our eyes and ears. This needs to be a community focus. This will take all of us as a collective group because we are stronger together. In closing, CUSD takes this topic very seriously and we are actively seeking ways to grow and improve our partnerships, resources, and efforts when it comes to raising awareness for youth mental health.
WHEN: 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 21
WHERE: Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill, 4955 S. Arizona Ave., Chandler