Content warning: This story contains discussion of suicide and may be triggering for some.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, suicide is the leading cause of death for Oregonians ages 10-24. Despite this, Oregon was one of only three states that didn’t require schools to have suicide prevention plans until Adi’s Act was introduced in 2019.
Adi’s Act is named after Adi Staub, a student in the Portland Public School (PPS) district who died by suicide in 2017. Staub’s parents shared about her transition during the testimony they gave on the bill on the Oregon senate floor on February sixth, 2019. They shared that their daughter came out as a transgender girl her sophomore year and that she initially did very well. Staub had finally felt free to express herself and was excited for the future. Upon her return to school her junior year, however, she felt marginalized as a result of the actions of both her peers and, unfortunately, of school staff. Staub went from being a straight A student to failing some of her classes. Just two years after her transition, she took her own life.
Staub’s parents shared a moment that was particularly troubling for them in their testimony, which reads: “During her senior year English class, Adi voiced a rare cry for help on an assignment in which students were asked to draft a memoir. Writing was her passion and where she could be most honest with herself and others. Her story centered on the self-destructive thoughts she was feeling, including a statement in which she said ‘I often worry for my future safety.’ Tragically, in response she only received 2 minor grammatical suggestions. The teacher did not reach out to us or report it to the administration. We only read her memoir months after she was gone.”
The family expressed that Staub was an activist who wanted to change the world, which led her parents to continue her legacy and push for a culture shift within the Oregon school system. After the Staub family’s push for “Adi’s Act,” also known as Senate Bill 52 (SB 52), it was passed in 2019 and would take effect in the 2020-2021 school year.
SB 52 requires all Oregon school districts to have a suicide prevention, intervention and postvention policy and plan. Prevention entails making sure students know how to get help and prioritizes discussions about mental health. Intervention is what schools do in the moment if a student is in crisis or shows signs that they are thinking about suicide. Postvention is what the school does after a death by suicide takes place in a community.
Kahae Rikeman, the Lines for Life school suicide prevention and wellness program manager, expressed that the process of school districts making their suicide prevention, intervention and postvention plans looks very different depending on the district. Rikeman explained that some school districts have been doing this work for a longer time, whereas others don’t have mental health resources in their areas and have never had a real conversation about what they should be doing. She says that the first step she takes with all districts is assessing what they are already doing and how they can support the work that’s already in place.
“Even in schools where they have nothing written down or any official policy about suicide, I know that they aren’t doing nothing.” Rikeman added, “[It’s crucial to try] to get at ‘what do we do when a student is in crisis?’ and to write that down effectively so that a staff member who has no mental health background can look at the plan and know what to do in that moment.”
Franklin High School (FHS) teacher Kate Moore noted, “Talking about suicide, and even asking directly if someone is considering suicide does not result in higher suicide rates. It results in higher intervention rates and treatment rates for people with suicidal thoughts.” Moore continued, adding, “Talking about suicide, and acknowledging that suicidal thoughts are just that, thoughts, that can be discussed, opens communication and offers options.”
According to PPS’s Frequently Asked Questions page for their Suicide Response Protocol, “The purpose of the Suicide Response Protocol is to provide a consistent response to the threat of suicide. The protocol utilizes best practices most likely to ensure the safety of the student through assessment, referral, and follow-up.”
PPS’s suicide prevention plan, which follows the guidelines of Adi’s Act, is documented using a flow chart that explains what path staff should take depending on the answers to questions at each step of the way. Each path begins with a “student has displayed risk for suicide.” This includes writing, actions, statements, social media, etc. The paths continue to step two, which is to notify the building administrator and/or designee. From here, the path splits into two parts: warning signs or attempt. This is where you begin to see a substantial difference between the paths.
If a student falls under “attempt” and is on campus, this is when other students are cleared from the area, resources such as 911 and/or the Multnomah County Crisis Line are called and the student’s parents/guardians are contacted. Students who are in the warning signs category are screened by school counselors, psychologists and/or social workers to determine if a student is classified as low or medium to high risk. Low risk is described as “no plan, no intention to harm self, low parent/guardian concern.” Medium to high risk is described as “self-harming behavior, threats, ideation, plan, history of attempt, access to means.”
The screening procedure that staff must follow consists of a series of clear and concise questions given to students about suicidal ideation, self harm and harm to others. At this point, staff are to summarize what the student just shared with them through checking a series of boxes that apply to the student’s situation. The student is then walked through a process called safety planning in which they are asked a series of questions that will help to keep a student safe when they are thinking about attempting suicide. The student’s parents/guardians are taken through a mirrored process.
The 2020-2021 school year is the first in which Oregon school districts are required to have written policies that follow Adi’s Act guidelines. PPS has met all the guidelines needed for their intervention plan and now will be working towards educating all of their staff about these protocols. The plans PPS has put in place are crucial to ensure that staff members in the district are never unsure of what to do in the event of a student’s crisis.
Adi’s Act is essential to increasing student’s safety in Oregon, in addition to continuing to create a culture in which we emphasize the importance of mental health, especially within educational systems. Adi Staub’s parents emphasized that goal in their testimony: “Our school systems should be places of hope, optimism and inspiration for all our kids. It is where they open minds and pursue passions.”