NEOSHO, Mo. — As the Neosho School District emphasizes suicide prevention efforts, a newly implemented program in computers issued to students has been credited with saving three of their lives.
The district has been part of a beta test of a program called Beacon, offered by GoGuardian, the software used to monitor activity and block adult content on devices loaned to students.
Tracy Clements, director of counseling services for the district, said it had been in use for about six weeks before schools were shut down for the coronavirus pandemic. She spoke more about the program during Monday's regular meeting of the Neosho Board of Education.
Beacon adds a notification system to its monitoring: When a student does searches or has conversations that might be related to suicide, the system utilizes mental health professionals to determine whether school officials should contact or intervene. If something appears to be of high risk, school personnel are called by phone.
"If the team determines a kid is actually getting ready to kill themself, we have an active list of people who get called," Clements said. "They first call me, and if I don't answer, it goes through an escalation list."
It has helped intervene in at least three situations that could have turned tragic, Clements said.
Almost every student in the district receives a computer to use throughout the year. Kindergartners through second graders are assigned iPads, while third through sixth graders are assigned Chromebooks. Seventh through 12th graders are also issued Chromebooks, but that group of students is allowed to take the laptop out of the school building. (All students were allowed to take devices home during the shutdown, Clements said.)
The program pairs with an existing system Neosho uses for suicide prevention, Clements said. In January of 2019, the district started conducting risk assessments based on referrals from students, parents and others, using philosophies discussed in "Suicide in Schools: A Practitioner's Guide to Multi-level Prevention, Assessment, Intervention and Postvention" by Jonathan Singer, Terri Erbacher and Scott Poland.
Because of that timing and the shutdown, the district still hasn't seen a full year of data, Clements said — something she was looking forward to.
But the program has led to hundreds of contacts. Clements said that in the 2018-19 school year, the district handled 173 risk assessments:
• 23 were considered high risk, where students had a lethal plan they intended to carry out.
• 34 were a moderate risk, where a plan was devised but not with the intention to act right away.
• 100 were low risk, where suicide was considered, but they realize they would benefit from counseling.
• 19 were considered no risk.
In the 2019 school year, the district conducted 210 risk assessments before the shutdown — 15 high risk, 42 moderate risk, 102 low risk and 51 no risk.
It's part of an effort that Neosho enacted to increase suicide prevention. The district reported eight suicides between 2014 and 2018, Clements said.
Jen Black, executive director of The Alliance of Southwest Missouri, said Neosho is not isolated — other schools are putting an emphasis on preventing teen suicide. The alliance is working to partner with the district for funding continued use of the Beacon program, which costs the district $5 per student, Clements said.
"When we heard about the increased searches for self-harm, we wanted to reach out and see how we can partner with the district," Black said. "Our goal is to try to secure some funding."
Implementation of the Beacon program continues, Clements said. One challenge comes from differentiating context between actual suicidal activity and flippant comments — "I'm going to kill myself" could be said by someone playing "Fortnite," for instance, or "wanting to die" could be just a reaction to an embarrassing situation. Clements said the Beacon program could also be expanded to include incidents of bullying or violence.