For the second time in less than six months, people are calling on Albuquerque Public Schools to address the issue of suicide following more student deaths. The largest school district in the state has announced it’s rolling out new prevention initiatives, but students and advocates say more tracking and specialized support is needed.
Looking back at last year, when he was an 8th-grader at Jefferson Middle School, Jay remembers being excited about heading to Albuquerque High School. “I really wanted to like, get into more science-y kind of things,” he said. “And yeah, I did want to play of the football team.”
These days, he’s instead taking a few classes online.
A month into his first semester of high school, Jay experienced a depressive episode. He had accommodations in place, including a shortened school day, but being at school was still tough. After the school said they couldn’t do anything more for him, Jay says staying enrolled would have likely made him feel increasingly suicidal. “It's kind of scary,” he said, “because I don't want to fall behind on my studies. I want to be able to be present with my friends and for teachers. But it's so hard to do that when it's like all I want to do is be back in my room and back in bed.”
Albuquerque Public Schools has seen a series of student suicides. After several Eldorado High Schoolers died last year, around 100 students turned up at the Oct. 2, 2019, Board of Education meeting to ask district leaders to do more.
An Eldorado student named Habba read out the announcement that rings through classrooms after a student suicide. “Good morning, one of our students passed away yesterday. You may or may not know the student,” she recited. The message goes on to say that if students need someone to talk to, counseling staff is standing by. “Do you know how many times I've heard this message?” Habba asked the board. “I've heard this message six times. What actions are you taking so I don't have to hear this message again?”
Another student, Patty, said eight of her Eldorado classmates had died by suicide in the past year. Students wanted, among other things, better-trained mental health professionals in more schools.
In response, APS Chief of Operations Scott Elder listed lessons taught in class, community resources promoted by the district, staff assessment and referral training, and new Bernalillo County funding for prevention services.
That was over four months ago. This month, two Manzano High School students reportedly took their own lives in the same week, and community members were back at the Feb. 19 board meeting calling for action.
Verland Coker is a community organizer who ran and lost a bid for school board last year. After KRQE-TV reported earlier in the week that the district did not track student suicides, Coker pushed back during the public forum. “APS stated that they do not track suicides because they are irrelevant to instruction,” Coker said. “It's unacceptable that that's the response. It's absurd.”
APS Superintendent Raquel Reedy said the district can’t determine whether a student’s death is a suicide. “We're not people that are in the medical profession. And that is not our job,” she said. “That is the job of the authorities.” She said the district can’t give out information it doesn’t have.
Earlier that day, Superintendent Reedy spoke to the press alongside representatives from the city and county among others about suicide prevention efforts.
She said the city is offering two optional trainings for APS staff. “QPR: Question, Persuade, and Refer”, specific to suicide-prevention, and “Youth Mental Health First Aid,” which is broader. The city, at the urging of its Kids Cabinet, will hold sessions open to the public through the end of the year.
But will it better prepare school staff? Shayna Klassen with the Department of Health said the material in the Youth Mental Health First Aid training is stuff that school counselors should already be familiar with. “Mental Health First Aid is geared towards laypeople. It's like having EMS personnel understanding basic first aid and CPR,” she said. “Yes, they're going to understand that, but they're also trained much more in-depth.”
Superintendent Reedy said that community-wide budget cuts are behind the low number of specialized mental health providers in the schools. “The cuts were horrific. And now it’s hard for us to find those kinds of health specialists.”
She says Bernalillo County has allocated funding to increase the number of providers, which will expand the community support system the district has available.
The superintendent encouraged students to speak up if they or someone they know is suicidal. “If you hear something, or if you read something on the internet, make sure that you go to an adult,” Reedy urged. “Because we will drop everything to go and help that child in crisis.”
But Jay, the student who left Albuquerque High School due to his mental health, says he did not see that level of care from school staff. “It may be true for other schools, but from my experience, that's not true. Like, I know people who were struggling too, and nobody was doing anything.” When asked if the students he knew were telling school staff about what was going on, Jay said he “wasn't sure”. He said he knew that “that's a point that a lot of people use. It's like, ‘oh, you're not speaking up about it.’ And it's like, because they haven't made this environment where it feels appropriate to speak up.”
In addition, APS says it will list the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line number on all student IDs beginning next year and is currently building a peer support program at the district's most at-risk middle and high schools.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the New Mexico Crisis and Access Line at 1-855-NM-CRISIS or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Queer and trans youth can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline by texting START to 678-678.