‘We’ve got to stop turning a blind eye to what’s in our backyard. I don’t care how sad or bad it makes us look, it’s here’
These are numbers Dr. Shannon Grimsley, superintendent of Rappahannock County Public Schools, never wants to see rise. Yet they have, to the extent that rural Rappahannock has caught up with the rest of Virginia.
“A recent School Climate Survey that we did is kind of scary,” Grimsley informs this newspaper. “It says 17 percent of our high school students seriously thought about suicide. We haven’t seen it that high, and we give the test every two years.”
In 2016, the number stood at 14 percent. In 2014, it was 12 percent.
The current 2018-19 school survey, developed by the Virginia Department of Education, also asks how many times over the past year a student actually attempted suicide.
“Six percent said one time,” reveals the Rappahannock superintendent. “Two or three times, 2 percent. Four or five times, 1 percent. That’s startling to me, especially as tiny as we are.”
While specific reasons provided by students for their distress are kept strictly confidential, Grimsley says those enrolled in Rappahannock High point mostly to “mood, sadness and depression issues,” which are often traced to the home and family environment.
“Some things we are seeing in the school are concerning as they connect to substance abuse,” she says. “Things that they had seen with substance abuse in their own homes — families, siblings, aunts, cousins. I think that’s where it’s coming from. You can’t always attribute it to substance abuse, but there’s issues going on in the home or outside of school that they carry into school, that they’re dealing with.”
Grimsley says “with those kids who are touched by it you’re seeing more trauma, more need for mental health counseling. We’re sending about two kids per week to get some counseling. And when you have high expectations for the learning you can’t get to the learning until you mitigate these issues they are having. So it’s pretty alarming. And the cases we are seeing are pretty sad.”
How bad does it get?
“Picture an 8-year-old who goes home and wants dinner off the bus and mom’s strung out — laid on the couch — and he cleans up her vomit and gets a Pop-Tart and goes to bed himself,” replies Grimsley. “Those are the kinds of things that are happening here.”
Whether it’s opioid addiction — now at “epidemic” levels in America — or other “death grip” drugs, as Grimsley herself refers to them, the superintendent wants struggling family members to “get the help they need,” particularly for the children’s sake.
“I believe with every bit of my heart that substance abuse is a disorder that we need to treat as a disorder, not as a punishable crime. It’s not criminal,” she states. “These people are dealing with a whole lot of baggage we have to get to the root of.
“So it is a growing concern and I don’t feel like it’s going away. My numbers in the school indicate it might be getting worse, and if we don’t do something the cycle’s going to get a lot worse and you’re going to see more of it.”
A student suffering from trauma, she explains, is “concerning to me because that almost always leads to substance abuse later [in life], or at least there’s a much higher risk.”
Impacted Rappahannock students are encouraged to approach those within the school system they most feel comfortable with to relay any personal struggles or concerns. And staff within the schools are constantly on the lookout for any children who might be experiencing trauma.
“All of our teachers are mental health first-aiders,” Grimsley observes. “We were the first school [system] in the state of Virginia to do that with all staff. We have been trained to notice red flags and ask certain questions and get to the root of the problems.”
Impacted students are typically assisted inhouse through the National Counseling Group, or NCG, which provides “therapeutic day treatment services in our schools. So they are present every day.”
At last week’s monthly school board meeting, meanwhile, there was some initial discussion surrounding a schoolwide policy for more trained staff to administer the emergency drug Narcan in event of an opioid overdose. The life that might be saved could be a “child, parent or visitor to our schools,” Grimsley notes.
Which isn’t to say school nurses in the elementary and high school don’t already have access to Narcan, as do School Resource Officers, “but we should have a policy to guide that,” she says. “It speaks to the bigger issue. It’s a sad commentary because there’s a lot more that I feel we need to do. And we’re going to do what we can at this [educational] level. I’m going to take care of the babies here the best I can, because as the mama bear I get real protective.”
Among other initiatives, the school system is considering the launch of an anonymous telephone hotline, overseen by a third party in consultation with Rappahannock school officials, that would be available to students and parents alike to seek help or relay concerns.
“I believe the county and the community need to take a look at how we’re going to eradicate the source,” Grimsley says. “Supervisors, administrator, sheriff — everybody getting together and perhaps creating a task force to look at it [and make] recommendations.
“We’ve got to stop turning a blind eye to what’s in our backyard. I don’t care how sad or bad it makes us look, it’s here. And so as long as we’re all aware that it’s here then I think we will be on the right track, because this community does amazing things when we join forces. When we get on the same page we do incredible things.”
Who’s at risk?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide among teens and young adults has nearly tripled since the 1940’s. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people over the age of 10 and results in approximately 4,600 lives lost each year.
More young people survive suicide attempts than actually die. Each year, approximately 157,000 youth are treated in emergency rooms across the U.S. for self-inflicted injuries. A recent survey of high school students in the U.S. found that 16 percent nationwide — 17 percent in Rappahannock with a statewide averaging also of 17 percent — reported seriously considering suicide, 13 percent reported creating a plan, and 8 percent reporting trying to take their own life in the 12 months preceding the survey.
Boys are more likely than girls to die from suicide. Of reported suicides, 81 percent of the deaths were males and 19 percent were females. Girls, however, are more likely to report attempting suicide than boys.