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Student Project Has Community Impact

By Rachel Judy | March 9, 2011

When a school experiences the suicide of one of its students, the resulting grief and confusion often leave school administrators uncertain of how to care for their staff and students. "People kind of tend to not really pay attention to it until—unfortunately—it happens," explains Rob Kay, a doctoral candidate in Regent University's School of Psychology & Counseling. "Schools seem to be saying, 'We've addressed this; we have a plan in place' but when that does happen they find that they're sorely unprepared for it."

Kay is one of three doctoral students who are addressing this lack of training head on. Kay, Brandon Ware and Thorayya Said Giovannelli have developed a manual for public high school teachers and administrators as they work with grieving students.

The manual—which includes scripts for conversations, self-care information for teachers, and protocols for dealing with suicide and sudden death of a student—was developed after consultations with school principals, local therapists and social workers.

While most schools do offer resources for teachers, Kay, Ware and Giovannelli found that those materials were often disorganized and didn't contain enough of the necessary protocols for dealing with student suicide. "[Our] manual has certain things that other manuals do not have," Ware said. "One of which is protocols for principals, teachers, and staff to follow in the event of a suicide to help to speak to children and other staff about it." The manual also contains information on how to report a student suicide and get families and the community involved.

After the manual was completed, the students offered it to I Need a Lighthouse (INAL), a Hampton Roads-based organization dedicated to reducing loss and suffering from teen and young adult depression, suicide and suicidal behavior. When a student at a Virginia Beach high school committed suicide in January, INAL asked to share the manual with the school's principal.

What started out as a class project became a vital tool for helping a school cope with loss. "The biggest strength of this project is its ease of use," Giovannelli said. "I think this shows how research and things that are based in hard scientific psychological evidence don't have to be above people's heads in libraries somewhere collecting dust. This can be easily used."

"This is a wonderful example of Christian integration in action," added Dr. LaTrelle Jackson, director of Regent's Psychological Services Center and associate professor in the School of Psychology & Counseling. "[We addressed it] from an application of healing, restoration and stabilization. ... It's psychology in a usable format where it can benefit not only the staff in the schools but the students and the families who are in partnership with the school system."

"The big thing I like about the project is it's in an area that's underserved. Most people don't want to touch it even though suicide has been around since the beginning of time," Ware said.

"We're essentially hoping to leave a legacy; we don't want this to end with us," Giovannelli added.

While many schools may have addressed the issue at one point in time, Kay believes that schools need to continue to offer and update resources and protocols for their teachers and administration. "People still commit suicide. ... People think that they've addressed it once and then they're prepared for it. And our manual keeps that in mind," he said. "We wanted to create a tool that schools can use to, in that time of crisis, have something readily available. ... The ripple effect of a poorly handled situation can be pretty severe."


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