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Breaking the cycle: How Mentor Public Schools is working to prevent teen suicide

For years now, Mentor has implemented programming to help students and staff understand mental health.

MENTOR, Ohio — The headlines were everywhere: Lawsuits against Mentor Public Schools after a string of student suicides between 2005 and 2008.

Some of the accusations were bullying, some of the cases have since been dismissed, but the pain of losing kids never goes away for anyone.

"Any time there's a student suicide, certainly it affects us all very deeply," Bill Porter, superintendent of Mentor Public Schools, said. "This is a profound situation for an entire community if it happens. Our goal is to try to prevent every single one from happening."

Porter says for years now, Mentor has been proactive about prevention, working in programs to help staff and students recognize when there's a serious problem.

"One thing that's changed simply is involvement with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness," he explained. "NAMI has been a great partner with us."

A significant addition is a 24-7 software filtering program. That means if a student types a concerning word related to suicide or violence on the school's network, administrators are alerted right away.

"Our administrators will get notified, our administrators can involve themselves immediately with our guidance counselors," Porter said. "If it's off hours, we can involve the police to do welfare checks at the home."

Still, the bullying claims of the past are top of mind today.

"We want students to make sure that they can speak up for themselves if they're feeling, you know, a certain way," Porter stated. "Also, that they can recognize the red flag signs and others as well, you know, classmates friends."

It's about changing a culture that discouraged kids from speaking up. That's something trauma specialist Dawn Ostrowski and her team from Crossroads are working on. Counselors are staffed full-time in Mentor schools; they want kids to feel safe.

"It's great to have peers that you feel close to and comfortable with talking about certain serious topics," Ostrowski said, "but I think what's even more important is taking that weight off of their shoulders and telling a trusted adult or a trained professional."

But speaking up can be hard to do if you're the one hurting people.

"Sometimes we forget that the students who are engaging in bullying activities, those are kids who need help, too," Ostrowski told 3News. "We definitely have to look out for the victims, but we also have to recognize that, a lot of the times, those perpetrators are victims as well."

It's that kind of outlook that is crucial for educators to break the cycle.

"A lot of times the answer is just, 'We'll just give them a consequence and suspend them and that's going to change it,' but it doesn't," Ostrowski said. "The root of the problem is not, 'These kids need to be punished.' The root of the problem is, 'There's something these kids are lacking.'"

The changes take time.

"It takes sometimes years and years," she admitted, "but you know, being able to see that progress over the last few years is pretty hopeful."

Porter says his district will continue this important work, especially if it means saving someone's life.

"We think it's making a difference, but certainly if there's more that we can figure out that we can do, we're certainly willing to do that," he said. "Making students know that they have somewhere to go."

For more information on Crossroads, click HERE. Are you or anyone you know in crisis? Call the toll-free national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

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