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Education Reporter

Suicide Courses Make a Comeback

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Suicide courses are making a comeback in many public schools. In thousands of classrooms, students are receiving suicide prevention lessons, often without parental knowledge or consent.

The debate about whether these courses help students or introduce destructive ideas of death has raged since they were introduced in the mid-1980s. Suicide courses began partly in response to a federal court ruling that school districts could be held liable if inadequate prevention measures contributed to a student's death, and partly because pressure groups tapped into a new source of taxpayer funding.

Proponents of such courses look to a 1995 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which showed that 1 in 12 students attempt suicide and 24% seriously entertain the idea of suicide. Between 1970 and 1994, the U.S. suicide rate of older teenagers nearly doubled.

California students spend more class time talking about suicide than any other state, according to the Los Angeles Times of March 10, 1997. Currently, 41% of the state's public school districts have suicide prevention programs compared to 15% nationwide.

A typical curriculum extends over a week (usually in a health or "life skills" class) and begins as early as junior high. Students hear suicide statistics and learn to recognize warning signs among their friends. They are urged to confide in a counselor or call a hotline if they or a friend are in danger.

Critics warn that this common approach to suicide prevention is too broad. Some children who have never seriously contemplated suicide or death but are especially impressionable can be impacted by the instruction in unintended ways. These critics believe it makes more sense to identify and counsel troubled kids individually.

In 1990, 8-year-old Stephen Nalepa killed himself the day after viewing a film called "Nobody's Useless" in his 2nd grade class. Stephen hung himself just as the character had in the film, except the fictional character was saved in time. The student's mother, Deborah Nalepa, said that her son was happy and had just been accepted in the gifted and talented program. "You put something like this in front of children," she said, "and they are going to recreate it." (See Education Reporter, April 1990.)

Opponents say that teachers are often not adequately trained and cannot be trusted with children's fragile psyches. California teacher A'lyce Baldarelli believes that much of what passes as suicide prevention borders on risky group therapy. One such technique, which she refused to use, is called "hot seat," in which classmates bombard a student with personal questions.

Some teachers have required their students to write their own suicide note, eulogy, or obituary. Other teachers have taken their students on a field trip to a local mortuary to view the corpses. On Sept. 21, 1990, ABC-TV's "20/20" showed a typical class visiting a morgue. The students were encouraged to touch "still warm human remains." The ABC reporters appeared shocked and urged parents to check with their local schools. (See Education Reporter, Nov. 1990.)

A film called "Carl," shown to students at Palm Desert Middle School during the 1993-94 school year, revolves around a young man named Carl who is relentlessly teased by classmates. One day, he breaks down and sobs, "Help me, God!" The next scene shows his silhouette hanging from a noose while the song "Amazing Grace" is heard. The narrator says, "From this day on he will find a better life." Julie Sullivan previewed the film before letting her son watch it the next day in school and was appalled. Children could conclude that suicide is noble. Her challenge to the video's use led to its discontinuation.

Fifth-grader Stephanie Frediani came home from Calistoga Elementary School in tears after having to draw her own tombstone with the predicted date of her death. Although she had initially refused, she obeyed when her teacher refused to let her go to lunch until she completed the deathly assignment.

In 1990, Columbia University professor David Shaffer conducted a study on suicide prevention courses. Such courses, he concluded, erroneously portray suicide attempts as a relatively common way of dealing with life's troubles rather than as a deviant act by the mentally ill. As a result, he said, children may conclude that suicide is normal, even acceptable.

Shaffer studied the attitudes of students in six New Jersey high school prevention courses and found that the attitudes of those previously favorable to suicide remained unchanged. His study also showed that students who took the classes were no more likely to seek help for a suicidal friend than those who had not taken the course.

Shaffer believes the best way to help suicidal students is to identify and counsel them with parental consent and a qualified instructor. "You need a lot of training to do these things in a skilled way," says Shaffer, who says that some teachers begin suicide prevention instruction after a single training session.

As a result of Shaffer's study, many schools, mostly along the East Coast, have ended suicide prevention programs.

However, the National Education Association passed a resolution in 1996 stating: "The National Education Association believes that suicide prevention programs including prevention, intervention, and postvention must be developed and implemented. The Association urges its affiliates to ensure that these programs are an integral part of the school program."

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