Safety & Security

Suicide at School

An 18-year-old student committed suicide with a firearm at del Sol High School in Tempe, Ariz. in May of this year. According to news accounts, a school resource officer was trying to persuade the student not to commit suicide when the student shot himself. Two of our school clients have experienced multiple on-campus suicides the last several years. In one instance, a student committed suicide with a rifle in a portable classroom. The facilities department had to replace the entire portable building because it was less expensive to do so than to pay the costs of clean up for the unit. However, the emotional impact from this tragedy was far greater than the damage to the facility.

More deaths from on-campus suicides than from active shooters

Steve Satterly’s 2014 report “Relative Risks of Death in U.S. School” indicates that schools are eight times more likely to experience an on-campus suicide than an active shooter incident. His report also reveals that twice as many deaths resulted from suicides on campus than from active shooter incidents during a recent 15-year time period. As a number of active shooters have committed suicide, suicide prevention measures take on even greater significance. There are also numerous instances where suicides of students away from school have been alleged to have been influenced by on-campus situations.

For example, two different students who attend Copper Basin High School in Polk County, Tenn. have committed suicide off of school property this year. Family members allege that the students were victims of bullying at school. School officials are investigating to see if there could be a link between the suicides and bullying. I have found that these situations are often very complex, difficult to address and painful for those who are connected to the students and staff who take their own lives.

School suicides demand appropriate resource allocation

Our analysts are concerned that school officials in many communities have focused an inordinate amount of their limited resources on active shooter response training. We have seen instances where school staff have received extensive training on active shooter response concepts that have not been validated as safe or effective while the same school employees have not been provided with staff development in evidence-based suicide prevention concepts. While we understand the high levels of concern for catastrophic events like active shooter situations, it is important that school officials not ignore a danger that is both statistically more common and has claimed twice as many lives on campus.

School suicides are a headline away

Just as we have seen with bullying, reports of student suicides allegedly caused by bullying and active shooter events, a perceived wave of school suicides could be just one media frenzy away. For example, there were a number of deadly active shooter events at schools before the media began to report intensively on them with starting with the school shooting in Pearl, Miss. in 1997. Intensive and often inaccurate media coverage has created an out of balance perception that has led many people to believe that active shooter events at schools are spiraling out of control. However, careful data evaluation shows that there has not been a significant increase in the number of school active shooter events over the past fifteen years.

Though the FBI’s recent reclassification of active shooter incidents shows an increase in the number of incidents overall in various settings, the study does not demonstrate the same increase in K-12 school events. With many on-campus K-12 suicide attempts being public in nature, it is likely that sooner or later, these incidents may begin to receive much greater media coverage. This could in turn lead to an increased risk of on-campus suicides. In addition, bizarre public suicide attempts such as those where students have lit themselves on fire in schools could also trigger a substantive change in how the media covers these tragic events.

Suicide prevention efforts combined with proper emergency preparedness efforts relating to these tragic types of events should receive more emphasis than they have been in many K-12 schools and districts. There are a number of evidence-based approaches to suicide prevention. While a number of school districts and non-public schools have done excellent work in this area, many of the schools we have assessed do not have any written protocols for suicides and attempted suicides. Now is a good time to review how your organization handles this pressing societal concern.

This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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