Fall River schools positioning for deep dive on suicide, bullying prevention
Diman Superintendent-Director Thomas Aubin and adjustment counselor Michaela Hetzler spoke at Diman on Wednesday, January 23, regarding new bullying and suicide prevention strategies (Photo by Amanda Burke)
By Amanda Burke
Posted Jan 23, 2019 at 5:15 PM
FALL RIVER -- Though authorities haven’t said how an 11-year-old Fonseca student died, representatives from area nonprofits, schools and law enforcement met Wednesday to discuss bullying, mental health and suicide.
“We don’t know the facts, but we do know that bullying exists in our schools, and in our societies,” said Superintendent Matthew Malone.
He and Diman Superintendent-Director Thomas Aubin chose to convene the meeting after fifth grade Fonseca student Javen Haskett died of still unidentified causes earlier this month.
The District Attorney’s Office and the Department of Children and Families are investigating.
“What’s to blame for this young man’s death, we don’t know, but our job now is to speak for him and his family and to think about how we as a community can ensure that no other 11-year-old ... feels that life is so bad that they can’t bear anymore,” Malone said.
Haskett’s death prompted parent Melody Rondeau to stand up at a meeting of the Fall River School Committee and ask what the district will do to curb bullying, an issue she said was so serious she pulled her child out of Mary L. Fonseca Elementary School.
About 45 attendees of Wednesday’s meeting, held at Diman, talked about what they’re already doing to support students’ mental health and address bullying. They also talked about what could be done differently.
Malone announced his desire to create a “joint task force” whose members would develop programming to cut down on bullying.
Later on Wednesday, he said leaders from schools and nonprofits will choose about five members to sit on the task force, which will assemble within the next three weeks.
“It is our hope that we establish a joint task force of experts, a smaller group than this, that could hopefully plan several activities and events over the course of our tenure in this role,” he said.
Aubin said suicide rates are up across all age groups. He said cell phones and other electronics have made students more isolated, and lonelier, than ever.
“Most of this is involved with isolation, social isolation. As we go toward a more technologically advanced world, we see that these devices are taking the place of human interaction. The cost of this is incredibly high,” he said.
Malone said educators must teach students not only academics, but tenacity, empathy and how to get along. He said students model the behavior of adults.
With Mayor Jasiel Correia II and several members of Fall River School Committee seated nearby, he said local politics sees its fill of bullying.
“Guess what, the kids are watching how we model our behaviors, and let’s just be honest, I see more bullying in public meetings in Fall River than I do in schools,” Malone said.
Whereas children once could escape bullying in the home, social media brought about cyberbullying, and “now kids can’t escape,” Malone said.
Administrators from Diman Regional Technical Vocational High School, Fall River Public Schools and Atlantis Charter School noted resources including social-emotional learning teams and adjustment counselors.
Diman and Fall River bring in out-of-district councilors when needed, said Diman adjustment counselor Michaela Hetzler and Fall River school counselor Annie Palumbo. Atlantis has a “community resource center” devoted to connecting families with services, said District Leader Gabriela Birmingham.
But school counselors can get too busy to juggle the emotional struggles of all students assigned to them, said B.M.C Durfee High School class president Kyle Neves.
Neves said his guidance counselor has 200 students, and that academic work like college recommendation letters need to be done, too. “She’s not available all the time.”
He recommended area districts hire more counselors devoted to students’ mental health. “If we hired therapists or mental health specialists, I think that would be beneficiary,” he said, adding that he wants to see a city-wide anti-bullying day.
Eric Poulin, who works in the Bristol County District Attorney’s Community Affairs Unit, suggested area districts start screening students for suicide risk at a younger age. These screenings currently happen in high school.
“We’d like to see that same type of prevention and screening going on in the middle school level. A lot of times there’s hesitancy to talk with students that young around suicide prevention because people think that that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Agencies and schools need to focus on how to make it easier for students to talk to “caring adults,” said Wendy Garf-Lipp, executive director of United Neighbors of Fall River.
“We haven’t built into the program a way for them to connect to us when they really want to talk, when they just need a little bump up in their connection,” she said.
Garf-Lipp said the district should take on “low hanging fruit” -- training all employees to recognize the warning signs of suicide.
Fall River School Committee member Thomas Khoury noted the importance of teaching students social skills so that “kids can open up and speak to one another and prop each other up.”
He asked for suggestions on how to address the “elephant in the room” -- bringing parents into the discussion.
“We’re talking about programming for the kids, but for some reason or another we’re missing out on bringing more parents into the equation,” he said.
Matthew J. Kuss Middle School Principal Maria Pontes suggested putting on a number of “collaborative” sessions for parents with students in Fall River schools to “involve parents in this work. This is important work that we can’t do alone.”
“We have to include our families. We’re here we’re all committed to it, and I think we have a huge missing piece that needs to be brought in,” she said.