By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Schools take steps to respond to tragedies; Safety Summit set Wednesday

McMinnville schools prepare for tragic circumstances, such as the loss of a student to death by suicide. Staff take trainings, teams of counselors from throughout the district are ready to respond, substitutes are available to take over a grieving teacher’s classroom and other agencies are involved.

But each situation is different, and the response is customized, said Kourtney Ferrua, a McMinnville High School graduate who has been a teacher, principal, Teacher on Special Assignment and now is director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the district.

“First we try to understand and verify the layers of impact,” Ferrua said.

[See Also: County offers crisis hotlines, suicide prevention programs]

She, other administrators and the rest of the staff try to control rumors, as well. They communicate with law enforcement and other officials to verify facts – which sometimes means their response seems a bit slow to outsiders fueled by the rumor mill and social media.

“We want to communicate what’s accurate,” she said.

McMinnville works with the Willamette Education Service District, which serves Yamhill, Polk and Marion counties, and with Yamhill County Public Health to make sure the right resources are available, Ferrua said.

Following a recent death, for instance, six or eight additional counselors staffed a support room at Mac High. “A steady stream” of students and teachers came to the room to talk or grieve after the tragedy was announced, she said.

“We try to over-respond with support,” she said, providing more counselors and mental health specialists than might strictly be necessary, especially at first. That gives opportunities to everyone who needs to talk or seek comfort, she explained.

Ferrua said the school district follows guidance from the county mental health program, headed by Zoe Pearson.

The county also sends counselors, including younger people trained in peer support who relate well to teens, she said.

School district staff members are trained to have those conversations in a program called “Question, Persuade and Refer.” It teaches steps anyone can learn to help prevent tragedy, she said. County trainers are available, as are peers who’ve already taken the course.

Support continues as long as it’s needed, Ferrua said. “Our goal is to address the immediate need and help with the crisis” for the whole school community, she said. “If individuals need more resources after that, we can help them contact what they need.”

School, county and other responders are particularly concerned with keeping other students from hurting themselves. Instead, they want to help them to work through their problems with help from family members and other adults, and to assist their peers in doing the same.

“We’d love for each family to check in with their kids about how they are doing,” Ferrua said. “Ask open-ended questions … Who are your trusted adults? What would you do if you’re nervous about a friend? What would you like to talk about?”

Ferrua said parents may find it hard to talk to teenagers, but it is important. It saves lives.

“We need to normalize talking about this,” she said. “Kids don’t have to carry the weight of the world themselves; there are adults to help. There’s always help; there’s always hope.”

Safety Summit set Wednesday

Suicide prevention, anxiety, social media use and other topics will be addressed at the McMinnville School District’s “Safety Summit” from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, at McMinnville High School.

The evening will include sessions on various issues that affect young people and resources for helping them.

Kelsey Murray of Yamhill County Public Health will talk about suicide prevention.

Two deaths by suicide have rocked McMinnville High School in recent weeks.

The presentation will include suggestions for talking to teens about the topic, their own feelings and how they can help their peers, as well as about how adults can help.

Other presentations include:

- Anxiety and depression, presented by Lutheran Community Services.

- Sexting and sex trafficking, presented by Susan Inman of Soroptimist International, and Justin Moshofsky of the Department of Homeland Security.

- Social media use, including cyberbullying and online predators, presented by Juliette’s House, the child abuse prevention and intervention center.

- Bullying, presented by Kelly McIntyre of the school district.

- Teens, fentanyl and Narcan, presented by Brenda Carnese, Yamhill County Public Health.

- Young people and vaping, presented by Caitlin Denning, Yamhill County Public Health.

Childcare will be provided for children 2 and older. For more information, call the school district at 503-565-4000.


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