Missoula County Public Schools administration became aware of a potential suicide pact among a group of middle-school-aged teens last month.
The news brought concern from parents, with many now asking how teachers are equipped to discuss a topic like suicide with their students.
When it comes to this sensitive topic we learned MCPS isn’t short on curriculum. Beginning in the sixth grade, educators begin having conversations about suicide prevention and awareness.
MCPS teaching and learning executive director Elise Guest oversees instructional strategies and assessment practices for MCPS and while she’s big on curriculum, Guest said creating a safe environment is even more crucial for students than hitting the books.
“When students feel safe and confident and comfortable, they’re then able to focus on the academics in the classroom,” said Guest.
The same goes for health and physical education teacher Craig Mettler who says that after 10 years of teaching, he’s learned that building relationships is key.
“I think my protocol as a teacher is relationships," he said. That’s what my job is. Relationships, number one and curriculum number two because without relationships, the curriculum doesn’t matter in my eyes.”
Even with the responsibility of nearly 150 students, Mettler said it’s a teacher’s job to know each and every one of the kids and to take note when they begin to show warning signs.
“We have to be super vigilant, and just be aware of kids and their behaviors and their changes in behaviors. I would say that that’s the number one thing, the change in behavior.”
Despite the hard work of our local educators, there are times when students still fall victim to the tragedy of suicide. It’s for this reason that MCPS has strict curriculum standards regarding the topic.
“Standards allow us to focus on specific content areas,” said Guest, adding, “Some of those can include things from healthy relationships to taking care of ourselves, to alcohol and substance abuse and so forth. With a focus on these standards that gives us an entry point to explicitly teach the students some of the specific pieces that we’re including with our suicide awareness curriculum, which is called SOS.”
SOS stands for Signs of Suicide, and through these lessons, students are taught specifically who to go to and talk with if they’re worried about themselves or their peers. In addition to the Signs of Suicide curriculum, each school in MCPS also has a crisis team that works to support students who might be at risk.
“Learning different avenues of support allows them to know that there’s a wide variety of people ready and willing to help them. Schools are really responsive in making sure that they have staff members available to students to feel comfortable to come and talk to them," Guest said.
She told MTN News that this speaks to the relationships MCPS staff build with their students. Whether it’s a teacher, coach, parent, or someone else you trust, MCPS reminds you that it’s okay to reach out.
“We all need help at some point in our lives,” said Mettler. “If you need help, reach out to a trusted individual.”
In addition to the Signs of Suicide curriculum, each school MCPS school has a crisis team that works to support students who might be at risk.