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A group of students pose in their small group at Herriman High School’s “Be The Change” event.
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‘Let’s Save These Lives’: Reflecting On Change One Year After Herriman Suicide Crisis

HERRIMAN, Utah— This timelast year, the Herriman community was in crisis. They sought answers after losing their eighth teenager to suicide in one year.

Parents greeted students at the school every morning, the PTSA put up posters with encouraging words through the campus, and students formed new clubs.

However, the community knew they needed a long term solution.

Jordan School District

Bryce Dunford, President of the Jordan School District Board of Education, knew they couldn’t do it alone.

“We sat around a board meeting and we looked at ourselves and said, ‘What do we do? What do we do?’” he explained. “None of us were mental health experts, and a bunch of educators were looking around the table saying what do we do to help with mental health?”

The Jordan School District hired McKinley Withers, a mental health and wellness specialist, to advise the board.

The Jordan School District hired McKinley Withers, a mental health and wellness specialist, to advise the board.

The board hired McKinley Withers, a full-time district wide mental health and wellness consultant, to advise the board.

Dunford told him, “If we’re not doing something that we should be doing, you tell us. If we need to spend money on something, you tell us… Let’s save these lives.”

Withers admits the schools don’t have all the resources to help students with mental health concerns. “We are well equipped to educate, but we aren’t well equipped to treat illness,” he said.

Today, Withers is connecting parents and students and the school district to community partners including local doctors and mental health coalitions who do have answers.

“When it comes to mental health, there’s there are several people involved in someone’s life that are part of that process of making it better, including the person struggling,” he explained. “We can foster that connection and get people where they need to go.”
Withers wants to make it easy for parents to access the mental health services they need for their children.

He encourages parents seeking resources for their students to visit wellness.jordandistrict.org. Withers has compiled a a list of local private mental health therapists and counselors in the area for family to seek out.

“The more we resources that people have throughout that system, and more training and knowledge people have, the better off the person struggling is going to be,” Withers said.

He networks with fellow mental health experts in the community to find resources through the Utah Suicide Prevention Coalitionand the Salt Lake County Suicide Coalition, among others.

Withers is also trying to help train community members, including school lunch managers and others on campus, on QPR, an evidence based basic suicide prevention training. QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer. Most local city coalitions, like Healthy Herriman offer a free monthly training open to the public.

Withers also encourages parents to utilize the services offered through Salt Lake County Behavior Health.

The board also hired a new social worker at Herriman High and a psychologist at every elementary school in the district. “The more support we can have at the younger ages, hopefully, children are able to build resiliency to learn how to problem solve, to know how to get help, what that help looks like,” Withers said.

He said the Jordan School District will be applying for additional funding passed during the 2019 legislative session for additional mental health providers

With the additional funding, Withers said the board hopes to hire eight on campus mental health supports for the upcoming school year this fall.

Herriman High School

Principal Todd Quarnberg is also a new face at Herriman High. He was determined to help his teachers, students, and the rest of the community heal.

“I will love you. I’m going to support you in every way that I can to help us move forward,” he told his faculty.

He later told a group of student leaders, “We shall never forget what happened last year and the memory of those students needs to be maintained, but we need to do as they would ask us and move forward.”

Todd Quarnberg visits with students as the new principal at Herriman High School

Todd Quarnberg visits with students as the new principal at Herriman High School

Asi Reit ,a Junior at Herriman High School, said, “I’ve never had a principal who I feel like care so much about our student body.”

Brianna Godfrey, Herriman High School’s PTSA President, said she and her son appreciate Quarnberg’s efforts to be involved in as many extracurricular programs as possible.

“’Mom, Mr. Q just showed up on the field wearing a band t-shirt,” her son told her. Godfrey said it was a Saturday afternoon, the weather was crappy, and the event was down in Utah County.

“I absolutely love these kids, as I have for years and years and years,” Quarnberg said.

In addition to being present for the students, Quarnberg held Friday teacher training meetings on QPR, hosted guest speakers on suicide, worked with school counselors to sponsor after school parent courses on how to talk to your teen, and introduced a new program called Thrivefor students.

Be the Change

Quarnberg supported Herriman’s first ever “Be the Change” event on campus. It’s a day of team building activities and connection for students, parents, and teachers.

“Everyone from the star of the football team to the person that just moved in and doesn’t know a soul,” Cindy Watkins, a Herriman High School Counselor, described.

Alyssa Topham, a teacher a Herriman High School and director of the Peer Leadership Team, helped organize the event. She encouraged her students to widen their horizon. “They talked to kids that they usually wouldn’t and they invited them [to the event],” she explained.

Students share real feelings and experiences throughout the course of the day. “This year was a start a start for recovery start to just reconnect,” Watkins said.

Herriman High Junior, Evan Hofhines, said the event was a counter superficial connections online.

“[On] social media, you put out what you want people to see, but in this, you put out what you really are,” he said.

Teachers also participated, leading small groups of students in a discussion. Troy Jensen shared some of his own personal experiences and said it helped him relate to his students.

A group of students pose in their small group at Herriman High School’s “Be The Change” event.

A group of students pose in their small group at Herriman High School’s “Be The Change” event.

“I kind of went down a very bad path. I was not a great student in high school, I was your C student,” he told his students. Jensen said he felt his students realize he was also, “a normal human being that has faced challenges.”

Jacquelynne Peck, another junior at Herriman High School, appreciated how genuine teachers were during the event. “They’re not just the person grading your math test,” she realized.

Quarnberg said he is training and relying on his teachers more than ever. “We are the first line of defense. If they’re having problems at home, or at school or any other life problems. We have to identify those measures early,” Jensen explained.

“Because if you want to create a safe learning environment, it has to be about relationships,” Topham said.

Next year, Herriman High School is hosting two “Be the Change Events” by popular demand. The first will be held October 2, 2019 and the second will be on March 5, 2020.

SUICIDE PREVENTION RESOURCES

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or exhibiting warning signs, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additional Crisis Hotlines

  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-226-4433
  • Salt Lake County/UNI Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • National Suicide Prevention Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741-741
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386
  • University Of Utah Crisis Interventional Crisis Line: 801-587-300

Online resources

In an emergency

  • Call the police
  • Go to the emergency room
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