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Sonoma County school counselors on alert following Parkland teen suicides

The Press Democrat - 4/1/2019

April 01-- Apr. 1--School counselors across Sonoma County are on alert, checking in on students and watching for red flags following the recent apparent suicides of two Parkland, Florida teens who last year survived the country's deadliest high school shooting.

The teens had attended Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students and teachers were killed on Feb. 14, 2018. Their deaths, a week apart, made national headlines, putting a spotlight on the need nationwide for suicide prevention.

Local school district officials and counselors say they are looking for signs of depression and disengagement among their students.

"We're always concerned about copy cat behavior," said Dave Rose, assistant superintendent of student services at Petaluma City Schools.

The Petaluma district has mental health professionals at each of its schools, including counselors and licensed marriage and family therapists. The district also utilizes the Sonoma County school crisis response and recovery resource guide, which includes a section on suicide intervention, to assess a student's behavior and potential threats to their wellbeing.

"We want people to be able to turn to a staff member and report concerns," Rose said. "It needs to be a partnership between family, student, support services and school."

Suicide, on the rise nationwide, is the second leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 10 and 24, according a 2017 Center for Disease Control report.

In Sonoma County, there was an average of four deaths a year by suicide among 10- to 19-year-olds between 2014 and 2018, according to the county Department of Health Services.

"We know teens as a whole tend to leap before they look," Rose said. "A lot of times when you feel that bad it's all consuming. It impacts your behavior, your health, and people may notice."

Sydney Aiello, 19, a recent Marjory Stoneman Douglas graduate and friend of a shooting victim, died on March 16. Calvin Desir, 16, a sophomore at the school, died a week later on March 23.

Just two days later, Jeremy Richman, the father of a 6-year-old Sandy Hook shooting victim, died by suicide in Newtown, Connecticut.

"Whenever there's teen suicides that's highly publicized, you keep that in the back of your mind," said Matt Marshall, director of student services in the Cotati-Rohnert Park district. "Staff are usually on higher alert, and they often check with students to make sure they're OK."

The Cotati-Rohnert Park district conducts mental health presentations for sixth-, seventh- and ninth-graders at least once a school year, teaching students signs of depression and anxiety and encouraging them to reach out to a trusted adult. The district has two social workers, a dozen school counselors and six psychologists for all grades.

"It's definitely on our radar, and we want to support our kids," Marshall said. "We're interested in helping students and supporting the whole child."

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county's largest district with about 16,000 students, has 43 full-time counselors, according to Steve Mizera, assistant superintendent of student and family services.

A state law requiring districts with students in seventh-grade and up to have a suicide prevention policy was passed in 2016, making California the first state to enact such a mandate.

Santa Rosa's suicide prevention policy was updated this year, and it includes teaching educators about suicide prevention, crisis intervention procedures and methods to promote a positive school climate to "enhance students' feelings of connectedness with the school."

"I think the complexity of our society and social media, and what it means to be an adolescent in the 21st century, is complicated," said Heidi Pedrazzetti, counselor on special assignment in the Santa Rosa school district. "There's just a lot of stressors on kids these days."

Warning signs of depression include increased use of alcohol or drugs, withdrawing from social activities, disruptive sleep, giving away treasured possessions, aggression and fatigue, according to the American Prevention for Suicide Prevention.

"Social media leads to isolation and can lead kids to feeling alone," Pedrazzetti said

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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