Suicide Prevention and Understanding in NNY

Bob Gorman

Suicide remains the death that dares not speak its name.

    Families often write around the word in obituaries to avoid citing the actual cause of death. Medical examiners are occasionally begged to do the same thing if writing the word “suicide” in their report will mean the loss of benefits for a grieving survivor with three small children.

    And all those drug overdoses? Local death statistics include actual question marks. That’s because even though investigators are pretty sure many of these deaths were intentional, they can’t be certain if there were no notes or witnesses.

    If you talk to first responders, nonprofit leaders and high school guidance counselors, you learn quickly that suicide is a topic that can no longer be avoided. Somebody this year will attempt suicide while in jail, or at a halfway house or after another evening of reading texts from a mob attacking the psyche of a solitary teenager.

    My one lone involvement with a suicide was the death of an employee at the Watertown Daily Times in 1999. Charlie Tenny took his life by hanging himself from a tree in his beloved Adirondacks. Because Charlie was a journalist, many other journalists tried to make sense of the senseless.

    One of Charlie’s friends, who worked at the Hartford Courant, wrote a column almost a year after Charlie’s death that included this: “The timing of his suicide remains incomprehensible to me. He did it while his sister, Carol, was in China adopting a baby girl. Carol got the news of Charlie’s death in Los Angeles, between flights on the way home to Pittsburgh. She screamed “No! No! No!” so loud that people came running across the terminal.

    Back home, Carol fell into depression.

    “I did feel my life changed unalterably from the moment I found out that Charlie did what he did,” Carol told me. “I would look at teenagers laughing, and I would just be amazed. They were like foreign animals. What are these people doing? There just seemed to be such a gulf between me and them.”

    In public places, Carol would suddenly blurt out, “I love you, Charlie.”

    “I thought I was saying it quietly, but people would look at me funnily… but I couldn’t talk to anybody without telling them about [Charlie’s suicide]; it was a central fact of my life.”

    To encourage a conversation about the value of life, the United Way of NNY in late March sponsored events at eight high schools and two evening programs with Roger Breisch of Batavia, Ill. Breisch has spent the last 15 years as a counselor on local and national suicide hotlines, often talking to teenagers who think their lives are useless.

    Breisch’ s talk, “Finding Life on the Suicide Hotline” challenged students to take an inventory of their own lives and find ways to value the person they are, and not give credence to a false narrative about who they aren’t.

    His uplifting message comes at a good time. The region’s suicide prevention coalitions in Jefferson, St. Lawrence and Lewis counties are working to reverse a trend that saw 163 people commit suicide in the three-county region over a five-year period.

    Kevin Contino, a data analyst for the Fort Drum Regional Health Planning Organization, has statistics collected locally and through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    In 2016, the suicide death rate per 100,000 population was:

  • 12.8 for the three-county region
  • 8.5 for New York State
  • 13.9 for the United States

 Over the most recent five years of federal data (2012-2016), the death rate due to suicide was:

  • 14.1 in Jefferson County (83 deaths, 16.6 per year)
  • 21.4 in Lewis County (29 deaths, 5.8 per year)
  • 9.2 in St. Lawrence County (51 deaths, 10.2 per year)
  • The most common mechanisms for suicide were firearms (48 percent), hanging/suffocation (31 percent), and poisoning (19 percent).
  • Eighty-four percent of decedents were male.
  • Sixty percent of suicide deaths were at the decedent’s home, 7 percent were in an outpatient medical facility, and 33 percent elsewhere.
  • During the five year span, the death rate per 100,000 people for the age groups 15-24, 34-44 and 65-74 was almost identical at just over 17 percent.
  • In 2016 residents of the tri-county region had 235 emergency department visits with a principal diagnosis of either suicide attempt or suicidal ideation. The numbers for each county were: Jefferson, 161; Lewis; 15 and St. Lawrence: 59. Seventy-one percent of these patients were younger than 30; the median age was 21 and the percentage of male and female was identical.

    And for every one of these cases, there are dozens of survivors, like Charlie’s sister, who still cry out a loved one’s name.

    As Roger Breisch showed the north country last month, there is never a wrong time to start having a regional conversation to help reduce that suffering.

Bob Gorman is president and CEO of United Way of Northern New York. Contact him at bgorman@unitedway-nny.org or 315-788-5631.

Excelling in Leadership: Personal and professional growth bonds NNY businesses, communities

AMANDA MORRISON / NNY BUSINESS
Kylie Peck, President & CEO of the Greater Watertown North Country Chamber of Commerce, helps to coordinate the Jefferson Leadership Institute .

[Read more…]

Internship Savings: SUNY Potsdam’s Center for Applied Learning generates $550,880

CHRISTOPHER LENNEY / NNY BUSINESS
Toby White, Director of Experiential Education,provides students looking for internships acquire more information and resources.

[Read more…]

ESPRI Taking Shape in Helping Reduce Area Poverty

Eric J. Hesse, right, New York State Division of Veterans Affairs director, earlier this year met with community advocates during a training session for the Watertown Empire State Poverty Reduction Initiative. Hesse, a retired colonel who spent 10 of his 26 years in the military at Fort Drum, outlined the state’s role in helping the local ESPRI effort. Meeting with him were task force chairs, left to right, Kevin Hill, Workforce Development, Krystin LaBarge, Education, Carolyn Mantle, Education vice chair, John Bonventre, Transportation, and Angie King, Housing.

[Read more…]

Serving the North Country: CCE of Jefferson County isn’t just about agriculture; programs serve thousands of residents.

DAYTONA NILES / NNY BUSINESS
Kevin Jordan, executive director of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County

[Read more…]

July Small Business Startup: Stitches & Pics

DAYTONA NILES / NNY BUSINESS
Stephanie Shively is the owner of Stitches & Pics in Sackets Harbor.

[Read more…]

Learning and Leading a Sustainable Path

PHOTO PROVIDED BY TARA FREEMAN/ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY
Students take notes in their biology class on top of Whiteface Mountain as part of their required curriculum.

[Read more…]

JCC establishing new program for ex-soldiers with council funding

"Education" Button on Modern Computer Keyboard.

[Read more…]

North country faces obstacles in establishing charter schools

JASON HUNTER / WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, poses for a portrait Tuesday in Canton.

JASON HUNTER / WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES
Thomas R. Burns, district superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES, poses for a portrait Tuesday in Canton.

By ELIZABETH LEWIS & BRIAN KELLY
ELEWIS@WDT.NET, BKELLY@WDT.NET

About 92,000 students attend charter schools statewide, but efforts to establish the innovative publicly funded educational system have yet to gain traction in the north country.

Since the state Legislature approved charter schools in 2001, there have been more than 400 schools authorized by the state Board of Regents to operate. According to the state Education Department, 34 charter schools have opened and closed since 2001, leaving 269 in operation as of mid-September.

The majority of the schools are in the New York City area. There are none in Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence or Oswego counties. The closest such schools to the area are in Syracuse and Utica. According to area educators, none are currently on the drawing board for the four-county area.

The lack of a viable charter school is not because the idea hasn’t been considered, however.

Within the past five years, a group of educators in St. Lawrence County surveyed the community to gauge interest in starting a charter school in the north country.

The group looked for an avenue in which it could promote problem-based learning, a less structured learning environment in which students don’t rely on lectures and instead are involved in more hands-on activities, field trips and projects that use technology. A charter school seemed to fill those requirements.

“Problem-based learning is all the skills students need to learn to achieve great things in the world, in the workplace and in their lives,” science consultant at St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES David P. Lennox said. “The students are evaluated but not necessarily graded, just like we are in the real world.”

Because this type of learning isn’t available to students attending public schools, at least not in Northern New York, it was proposed a charter school be set up in Potsdam. One idea was to have the charter school implemented as part of Potsdam Central School.

Although the movement stirred early excitement among those in the educational field, it arrived stillborn.

Mr. Lennox, who campaigned for a north country charter school, said state funding is available for the development of new charter schools.

“We were looking at that as an avenue for funding,” said Mr. Lennox. “My plan was to have a school within a school, effectively within the public school arena, working with our public schools.”

However, when the state pulled out of funding such a project, the group of educators withdrew its application.

ECONOMIC ROADBLOCKS

According to District Superintendent of St. Lawrence-Lewis BOCES Thomas R. Burns, who was also involved with the charter school movement in the north country, the suffering economy in the region (and beyond) continues to hinder the ability of parents to go the nonpublic-school route for their children.

“The economic situation here has not been conducive to parents having extra income to spend on charter school tuition,” Mr. Burns said.

Because of this, enrollment numbers would be low. Since revenue comes to charter schools on a per-pupil basis, the group of educators was deterred from starting a charter school.

“Given the economy in Northern New York and the continuing drops in enrollment, this is a huge disincentive, rather than an incentive, to forming charter schools here,” Mr. Burns said.

According to Mr. Burns, the process involved with starting a charter school was an unforeseen paperwork venture the group didn’t plan to embark upon.

“A considerable amount of planning needs to be done prior to even submitting the application,” he said. “They had done some initial brainstorming but once they determined how much work was involved, they simply could not get it done with the few individuals they had.”

That being said, Mr. Burns is still interested in the idea of problem-based learning.

“We (at BOCES) have always been interested in the possibility of magnet programs or other regional, themed programs,” Mr. Burns said. “However, these types of programs do not have to be exclusive of the public school system, and in fact are not in other states and parts of the country.”

Mr. Lennox said he will probably not continue to pursue starting a charter school, but is still doing what he can to promote a problem-based learning program.

“I fully believe our education system needs to change and there are so many good models out there,” he said. “But trying to change public education is like trying to push a freight train — it is not easy.”

NORTH COUNTRY CHALLENGES

One of the obstacles faced in establishing a charter school in the north country is its rural nature, according to Stephen J. Todd, superintendent of Jefferson-Lewis BOCES. He said the area simply lacks the population concentration of urban areas to make a charter school geographically feasible.

“In rural parts of the state, our folks are more spread out and logistically it’s just harder to make it happen here,” he said. “The logistical challenges, at the end of the day, prove to be too daunting.”

He said the quality of public schools in the area has also served as a deterrent to any widespread movement to explore other options.

“People have choices that are serving their children well,” Mr. Todd said. “When you’re happy with these options, you don’t look for other options.”

He said in Jefferson County, there is a parochial school option — Immaculate Heart Central — that presents a viable alternative for parents.

“They are an excellent school and they dovetail nicely into what we do in the public schools,” Mr. Todd said.

IHC is a private Catholic school system in Watertown started in 1881 by the Sisters of St. Joseph, who remain involved in its operation today. The school system receives no state aid, although public school districts do provide students from their home districts with books and transportation. Its primary funding comes from tuition and support from Watertown’s four Catholic churches.

The system has about 250 students enrolled in grades kindergarten through sixth and an equal number in grades seven through 12, according to Robert Piddock, IHC’s director of advancement. Even though it is a religious school, it also offers a strong secular curriculum, with a quarter of its students being non-Catholic. It serves the entire Jefferson County area.

“We get students from Belleville Henderson to the south, Carthage, Indian River. It’s much more than just the Watertown city area,” Mr. Piddock said.

Mr. Todd said that while the parochial schools are a good fit with public schools, he does have some issues with the charter school movement, which can be overseen by colleges or a nonprofit organization, but can also be run by private corporations.

Charter schools can be more selective than public schools in regard to students enrolled there, he said, and he questions the transparency of a school that, while relying on taxpayer funding, designs its own educational programs.

“I have always personally been a little uncomfortable with a for-profit entity being involved with a public entity,” he said. “If public dollars are being used, it is important to know that these dollars are going for a public purpose.”

He also expressed concerns about potentially drawing resources away from public schools at a time when districts are already struggling to meet budgets.

“The challenge is when a student enrolls in a charter school within the territory of public schools, it does draw resources away from public schools,” Mr. Todd said. “The idea of introducing another system that competes for funding often presents financial challenges to the public schools.”

A CAMPAIGN ISSUE

Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, has made her opposition to charter schools known, most notably by pushing against a $500 Education Investment Tax Credit proposed in the 2015 state budget by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for parents earning less than $60,000 a year who send their children to private schools. It never made it past negotiations.

Mrs. Russell said charter schools were supposed to be a relatively short-term experiment in the state to allow educators a chance to try new educational approaches and figure out better ways to educate disadvantaged children, with the goal of closing the education gap between these students and students in more affluent areas.

“That was a laudable goal, but it’s now been hijacked by people who are turning it into a moneymaking enterprise,” she said.

Mrs. Russell said despite the goal, the gap has not narrowed and students in charter schools have fallen further behind their public school peers.

Her challenger, Republican John L. Byrne III, Cape Vincent, said in a prepared statement that he supports charter schools and the Education Investment Tax Credit.

“Charter schools allow for the same type of innovative practices as our public schools,” Mr. Byrne said. “They allow teachers to adjust their curriculums as needed depending on each student’s individual needs. They foster an environment to create their own unique identity like public schools.”

He said the tax credit provides scholarships to children of low- and middle-class families and also provides funding for public and private education.

“While we are very blessed to have such strong schools here in the North Country and do not have any charter schools locally, they do play a role in the development of our youth in other communities across the state,” Mr. Byrne said. “Albany should be doing what it can to help provide as many opportunities for our children to succeed and charter schools are certainly one avenue to do that.”

Mrs. Russell, however, claims that some charter schools have hired teachers without college degrees or formal training, or minimal training in the content they are teaching.

“The authority given to charter schools was to come up with best practices and then have these adopted by the rest of the education system,” she said. “They were given a tremendous amount of flexibility in order so that they could have the ability to do something innovative and outside the box. Now, that flexibility has been used to degrade the educational rigor in these schools.”

“Charter schools have just been overtaken and twisted into something beyond what was originally envisioned,” Mrs. Russell added.

Mrs. Russell’s position has drawn fire from New Yorkers for Independent Action, a well-funded political action committee that has launched negative ads against her in her re-election campaign against Mr. Byrne.

“The charter school system has really been a big-money enterprise run by corporations where they pay the administrators obscene salaries at the expense of the caliber of faculty and staff and, therefore, at the expense of the students’ education,” Mrs. Russell said. “Many charter schools don’t hire staff with the type of background and training that you would expect in a public school system.”

“Their test scores are nothing to write home about and they have historically excluded children with learning disabilities, or other disabilities, from their schools,” she added.

That formula short-changes public schools, as financial resources that could go to a public school system are diverted to charter schools.

“It further concentrates these students in the public school system, who at the same time are being deprived of funding in order to fund these schools,” she said.

Mrs. Russell also believes charter schools negatively affect enrollment at parochial schools near where they are established.

“Every time a charter school opens, a parochial school closes,” she said. “I think we have a strong affinity for our parochial schools in the north country, so that would also be a deterrent for charter schools coming into the area.”

A COMMUNITY SCHOOL

One alternative to attending public school in the north country is attending a private school, such as Little River Community School, located five miles south of Canton adjacent to Birdsfoot Farm.

The school, which is accredited by the state Board of Regents, began admitting students in 1999. The four-student school grew into a 12-student school within the first year. The school now teaches 41 students.

“It’s been growing very slowly, incrementally,” said Steven A. Molnar, director and teacher of the four-room school.

The school’s philosophy reflects back to the problem-based learning model Mr. Lennox attempted to introduce in Potsdam.

“I think the families really embrace our philosophy and complement that with their home life,” Mr. Molnar said. “We’ve got values of caring for people, caring for the planet and learning how to be sustainable, and I think they leave here with strong basic academic kinds of skills mostly because of the small class sizes.”

Mr. Molnar said parents and teachers develop individualized curriculums with each student. Along with learning basic skills — such as math, reading and writing taught in classes of four to eight students or even individually — students come together several times a week for democratic-style group discussions. They also participate in many hands-on activities, including working on Birdsfoot Farm and going on field trips.

Enrollment numbers increase every year despite the suffering economy, Mr. Molnar said.

According to the school’s website, tuition at Little River costs $5,138 per school year, or $571 paid monthly over the nine-month school year.

“We try to make it as affordable as we can,” he said. “We have a low tuition which means our teachers get paid significantly lower than a public school.”

Mr. Molnar said his school is successful because, since it doesn’t receive money from the state, it doesn’t need to follow as many regulations.

“Since we aren’t asking for money, we get the independence. A charter school probably gives up some independence because at the end of the day, they’re still a public school and they still have the mandates a public school has,” he said. “Is it going to work for everybody? No. And I wouldn’t even suggest using this model for others because we’re such a small school. The families put out a lot to be here and we recognize that.”

Government largest employer in St. Lawrence County

CANTON — By far, the greatest number of jobs in St. Lawrence County are in the government sector, which also provides the second highest average salaries, according to a new economic development report. [Read more…]