KERN COUNTY, Calif. — September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and 23ABC is taking an in-depth look at how our schools are supporting their students. According to a Kern County child death report, 25 children ages 10 to 17 in Kern County committed suicide between 2014 and 2018. Bakersfield Behavioral Healthcare Hospital’s Amber Smithson said there are many factors impacting middle and high school students’ mental health.
"When it comes to stress and you’re talking about adolescents, you’re looking at body image, grades. Certain groups can have a higher statistic, like the LGBTQ+ community. Ones that are loners, per se. Ones that are perfectionist and are trying to have perfect grades and the perfect life," said Smithson.
Assembly Bills 2246 and 1767 require all California schools grades K through 12 to have a suicide prevention policy. Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Jason Giffard said suicide prevention education is crucial for teachers and school staff members who spend nearly eight hours a day with their students.
"School’s really [almost] the first line of defense. Those are the people that interact with the children on a daily basis. They know the children, know them the best. You know, oftentimes they see them more than their parents do," said Giffard.
Prevention Programs Coordinator Sal Arias said the Superintendent Office holds Kern County schools accountable. Each year, schools must show certification proving they completed trainings and procedures.
"It’s a requirement and they [need to] certify to let us know that they’ve done those updates, updated those policies and procedures that are required of them," said Arias.
Assembly Bill 1808 passed two years ago, requiring the state to provide schools with an online training program, but Arias said the majority of Kern County schools aren’t getting the help they need.
"Unfortunately, you know, Kern County is a big county. A lot of students, a lot of teachers. So, you know, the amount of, they’re called licenses, that were given to Kern County are not going to be able to meet the needs [of] all the districts in Kern," said Arias.
A 90-minute online module called LivingWorks Start, the training requires a license to access it. State laws mandate this kind of training, but the California Department of Education said they only have funding to give 600 licenses to each county, which isn’t enough for bigger counties, like Kern, that have more than 600 school staff members..
According to the Superintendent Office, around 10% of Kern County’s school districts are receiving licenses. The following districts received licenses:
- Southern Kern
- Sierra Sands
- Delano Union Elementary
Arias said Bakersfield schools weren’t given licenses because they can more easily attend in-person trainings the district offers each year.
"We can actually get our rural areas trained when normally you can’t bring the entire school staff to Bakersfield for this training versus now being able to offer this training online," said Arias.
Arias said all Kern County schools are taking some sort of suicide prevention training, but the lack of licenses from the state means staff members across the county are doing different programs.
The California Department of Education tells 23ABC they are making a reservoir of extra licenses that smaller counties don’t need. Those licenses will be distributed to larger counties who request more. Still, Director of School Community Partnership Debee Schmidt said the Superintendent Office received a grant that will allow them to provide alternative trainings.
"We work in a consortium with the Kern Behavioral Health and a group of school districts, and we’ll be offering what we call QPR and Assist. So those are some suicide prevention trainings in this grant, so we’ll be offering them to those districts," said Schmidt.
Foothill High School English teacher Ryan Aldrich said helping a student in crisis was nerve wracking before any training.
"That’s a very severe, scary situation with a lot of responsibility," said Aldrich.
But he also said the ability to do so is critical.
"The ability for teachers to recognize signs and symptoms early and catch them, and following the proper procedures to get the team involved and the help that these students need is absolutely vital," said Aldrich.
Arias said they can’t measure the impact these trainings have on suicide rates among Kern County students.
"I don’t want to put a number, like saying our suicides went down by two or three, because [any] loss of life is terrible. It’s real tough to measure prevention and intervention," said Arias.
Schmidt said the real measurement is the capability of staff members to handle situations appropriately.
"Just having that training every year to build the confidence in the staff that if a situation was to arise they can recognize it and know what to do," said Schmidt.
Arias said the county will request more LivingWorks licenses, and he hopes one day everyone can take the training. But for now, each school will provide its own trainings, activities and events based on individual needs.
"We’re always striving to put supports for the whole child, so not just focus on academics, but focus on their social, emotional needs and any needs," said Arias.