First-ever Hope Week set at Jefferson schools / About Hope Squad

As with Hope Rocks, chalk messages on sidewalks can serve as signs of hope in times of trial. This message was chalked by a child on a Watertown sidewalk recently. [Pam Chickering Wilson]

JEFFERSON — As part of a new suicide prevention initiative, the School District of Jefferson will host its first-ever “Hope Week,” April 25-29, with the theme “A Flicker of Hope.”

The interactive week will involve students at all levels in consciousness-raising activities aimed at bolstering students’ resilience, creating a kinder school culture, and providing older students with important information and resources about mental illness and suicide.

“The goal of Hope Week is to raise awareness, to open doors to needed intervention, to reduce the stigma that surrounds suicide and mental illness in general, and to create an overall school environment of kindness, caring and connection,” said Kathy Volk, pupil services director for the Jefferson schools. “We’re working to help students build healthy coping strategies and resilience.”

She noted that COVID-19 and the disruptions in schooling and other normal activities still are having effects on families and individuals, which has led to increased anxiety and depression in people of all ages, but most notably among school-age children and teens.

While some aspects of the pandemic have eased, many people are dealing with continued hardships, whether it’s the loss of a job, health difficulties or anxiety and depression spurred by the conditions of the pandemic.

“The isolation early in the pandemic was very hard on people,” Volk said. “And things have been the hardest on families who were already stressed. Isolation, work situations, anxiety, depression … there’s a multiplier effect.”

Katy Riederer, Jefferson school psychologist, said that for this year’s freshmen, the last “normal” school year was their sixth-grade year.

Since then, students and their families have weathered jolt after jolt, from pandemic cancellations to absences and illnesses to lost instructional time and the stress of makeup work.

“For some, the return to full days of school has been very difficult,” Riederer said.

The week of special activities will include a guest speaker, presentations and activities during homeroom/advisory to raise students’ awareness and sensitivity, announcements about mental health strategies and statistics, and information designed to combat the stigma that historically has been attached to suicide and mental health issues in general.

At the elementary level, lessons on kindness and caring will be built into the school day, along with hands-on activities like painting “Hope Rocks” and hiding the painted rocks with inspirational messages around their school grounds and community.

“At the end of the week, we hope to have 3,000 rocks hidden around the community,” Volk said.

Young students also will share storybooks like “A Little Spot of Kindness” at the 4K and kindergarten level, and “A Flicker of Hope” for older elementary students.

At the elementary level, Volk said the issue of suicide itself will not be raised but, rather, students will be asked to do their part to help create a school culture of kindness, caring and inclusion.

At the middle and high school level, the culminating event of the special week will be the launch of the school’s new Hope Squad peer to peer suicide intervention teams, and to provide students at all levels with information and resources to boost their mental health and to get out ahead of any difficulties they might be having.

The Hope Squad effort actually began last year as the district trained advisors for the fledgling peer-to-peer suicide intervention program. These include, at the high school level, Katy Riederer, school psychologist, and Lisa McKay, support specialist; and at the middle school level, Deanna Battist, counselor, and Kim Heine, support specialist.

“We had hoped to launch the program at the start of this school year, but again the COVID impact was greater than we had expected and that pushed things back a little bit,” said Volk.

Now, the district is ready to recruit peer interventionists for the program at both the middle and high school levels.

Volk said that studies done in Ohio schools which already have established Hope Squads show that the program really does work, reducing the stigma attached to suicide and mental health in general, and promoting more referrals so people can get the help they need to be healthy.

The pupil services director said that Hope Squads, endorsed by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, center on listening, responding and connecting people to those who can help.

Funding for the Jefferson program came through a mental health grant provided by the Greater Watertown Community Health Foundation, and the Jefferson district was able to get discounted pricing as part of a Wisconsin state bid.

“Wisconsin Bill 528 supported this peer-to-peer suicide intervention program,” Volk said.

The grant money the district received provided training for the adult advisors for the program.

As the program moves forward this year, students who are selected and choose to join the Hope Squad will be trained in basic QPR skills. Staffers at all of the district schools also are being trained in these methods.

Volk described this method as “CPR for mental health.” The letters stand for “question, persuade and refer.”

Already, the Jefferson schools have one staffer fully trained in QPR, Lisa McKay, and she will be training other staff members.

Also involved in the special week will be the Kona Ice Truck, providing free shaved ice treats for students, and the Jefferson County Zero Suicide Coalition which will provide glow-sticks, Hope Rocks and bracelets with the local helpline number.

“The Zero Suicide Coalition has been a great partner, and they’ve been working with us all along as we planned this week,” Volk said.

At the end of Hope Week, students will be invited to nominate peers they trust to be part of the Hope Squad.

Coordinators believe that letting students nominate each other will result in the best people being recommended for the program. The selection criteria are: someone who is concerned about others, someone who’s a good listener, and someone who you (students) could turn to if you needed a friend.

Once these nominations come in, an advisory group of staffers will review the names suggested most often to make sure they’re a good fit (for example a student who is having trouble keeping up with their own schoolwork might not have the time to dedicate to this program).

Those who come out of the review process will be contacted to ask if they would like to take part in the Hope Squad, with the permission of their families. Anyone who’s nominated can turn down the offer. Those who accept will join with their families to meet with school personnel.

“Parent involvement is important because they’ll need to monitor their child’s role and to make sure it’s not too much for them,” Volk said.

By the next school year, planners hope to have both Hope Squads up and running, and by next year at this time the students who are involved will play a key role in running the 2023 Hope Week at their respective schools.

One more part of the district’s suicide prevention effort is the SUSO (Speak Up, Speak Out) hotline which went online last year.

This hotline, accessible via the school district’s website at www.sdoj.org, is active and has been getting reports fairly frequently from students, school staffers, parents and community members. It can be used to report someone as being a suicide risk, as well as other emergency situations like incidents of violence or bullying.

If a report of a child at risk of suicide comes in during the school day, the district’s crisis team will intervene to talk with that student and try to connect them with whatever resources they might need.

If the report comes through during non-school hours, SUSO is monitored remotely so that officials can intervene in a timely manner.

In the case of a suicide risk, police might visit that person’s home to conduct a well check and connect them to resources from there.

An additional aspect of the Jefferson schools’ suicide prevention initiative is school-based mental health services.

“This can be used any time there’s a barrier to a student receiving needed care, such as time constraints, lack of insurance or transportation, lack of funds or the inability to find a mental health care provider, providing that the families communicate with the schools about the barrier,” Volk said. “Sometimes, these school-based services are used as an interim measure until a student can be connected with a permanent therapist, and other times they continue to receive these services in the school.

“Over the last few years, I really feel we have built our capacity — at the elementary, middle and high school level — to address students’ mental health concerns,” she added, “and I know other area school districts are expanding their capacity, too.”

About Hope Squad

Hope Squad is a national effort, founded in Utah in 1999 in response to growing suicide numbers in the founding school district.

The effort brought together schools, communities and mental health agencies to promote suicide prevention, intervention and post-vention efforts. Post-vention is making sure a person who just has been through a crisis continues to be connected to needed support so they can maintain their mental health.

Looking into suicide statistics, the founders of this initiative learned that most young people who die by suicide give a warning sign, with some even alerting friends of their intention, but that the majority never reached out to an adult.

Out of the 1999 effort grew the national pilot of Hope Squad, which began training students to help identify struggling peers and refer those at-risk youths to adults for the help they needed.

Subsequent studies have shown that the Hope Squad curriculum is effective in improving students’ knowledge, skills and self-efficacy. Furthermore, the group even had success keeping its own members’ stress low as they assisted their struggling peers.

A 2020 study of the program found that schools which instituted Hope Squads reported less suicide-related stigma than other schools; that this stigma fell among males as compared to rates in non-Hope-Squad schools; and that this program aimed in boosting referrals of students who needed mental health help, as compared to schools without such programs.

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