EL Suicide Prevention and Anti-Bullying Expert Addresses Recent Deaths at ELHS

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Friday, February 5, 2016, 1:25 pm
Ann Nichols

Kevin Epling

As the community tries to process the two recent student deaths at East Lansing High School, people are looking for guidance. Parents, teachers and school administrators are trying to find the best way to talk to children and young adults about what’s happened, and to figure out any possible way to prevent further losses.

I turned to East Lansing resident Kevin Epling, a nationally-recognized anti-bullying authority and speaker, as well as the driving force behind Michigan’s “Matt Epling’s Safe Schools Law.” Epling is also an unwilling expert on teen suicide; the law is named after Epling’s son who killed himself in 2002 after being bullied in the East Lansing Public Schools.

He speaks of the “stigma for parents of suicides,” which is “not the same” as the community response to a child lost to cancer or a car accident.

Epling “finds it alarming that there were two deaths in such a short span. We can’t totally protect every single child in every school; the best we can do as greater communities is to make sure that they’re listened to, concerns are responded to, that we talk about tough subjects. It’s the responsibility of kids and adults to find the common ground to talk about subjects like suicide and addiction. When Matt died, nobody talked about suicide, but that’s changed. People have to take a leap of faith and put in place a plan of action. That’s what we need to see from East Lansing [Public Schools] – what are we going to change?”

Although he cites a number of resources to create that change, Epling stresses the importance of giving students a chance to speak. He advocates for a community forum and adds that it should not be held at ELHS but at Hannah Community Center which he sees as “neutral ground.” A letter today from ELHS Principal Coby Fletcher lists a number of plans and resources including “community forums” but does not indicate where those forums will occur.

“In all of the research that’s been done, the number one complaint from students is when they tell someone, nothing is done,” says Epling. “It’s a bad pattern - students just don’t tell anyone. As adults, we put it in boxes that we can understand, but it doesn’t work.”

As far as what happens in schools, Epling says now is “the perfect time to look at our processes and how we can do better.” After Matt Epling’s death, “East Lansing happened to be the center of changes that influenced laws and programs all over the country” and was “in the prime position to be a national leader on school climate. We had the perfect set of tools coming out of a very sad storm and nobody really took hold of it.”

He cites the 2006 Chase Edwards law which states that “[t]he board of a school district or board of directors of a public school academy is encouraged to provide age-appropriate instruction for pupils and professional development for school personnel concerning the warning signs and risk factors for suicide and depression and the protective factors that help prevent suicide.” Noting that the law “encourages” schools rather than requiring them to act, Epling says, “Have our local schools been doing that? We don’t know.” The battle, he says, can “only be won by proactive monthly, weekly attention to details and not only when a tragedy happens. We have to be proactive rather than reactive, we have to live it, to embody what we’re talking about. Adults have to model the behavior.”

In addition to community forums, Epling is a proponent of the Okay2Say, program, in use at ELHS, that he says, “has been extremely effective in getting guns and drugs out of schools and thwarting suicides, based on over 1400 reports.” The program allows students to notify law enforcement by text, phone, and email or through a website if they see something they feel is dangerous – including peers in emotional distress. Users of the program may identify themselves or remain anonymous, and Epling says kids reluctant to take action should be told “you aren’t getting someone in trouble, you’re telling to keep them out of harm’s way.”

Epling’s bottom line is that “student voice is the biggest part of the process; if we give them that voice, as adults, we must listen.” Although no parent would ever choose to know as much as he does about bullying and suicide, he remains committed. “I’m still extremely passionate about this,” he says, “and I’m not going to walk away from this world.”

Note I am still seeking information about locally available resources for children, teens and parents both to prevent suicide and to help with the grieving process after a death has occurred. Thank you to all who have contacted me so far – a story on local resources will be published early next week. If you haven’t contacted me and would like to, please email me at editor_ann@eastlansinginfo.org.

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