Unintended consequences: Jackson County school board signs suicide screener resolution

Unintended consequences: Jackson County school board signs suicide screener resolution

The North Carolina General Assembly passed the Parent Bill of Rights in August of last year, and now school systems in the state have found a potentially life-threatening oversight in its language. 

“It’s not a hurdle to say that I need parent permission to survey a student or evaluate a student, but it becomes a hurdle when you’re looking at a student who is exhibiting suicidal ideation,” said Jackson County Public Schools Superintendent Dana Ayers.

Across the state, school systems are creating resolutions that support an exception to the parent bill of rights for suicide risk screeners. Ayers brought a version of this resolution before the school board during its March 19 for board members’ consideration.

“We are wanting you all as a board to support signing this resolution to send on to higher ups,” said Ayers. “Not so that we would implement it immediately but so that our state, the General Assembly could recognize that not being able to do a suicide risk screener could be more harmful to a student than first getting permission from a parent.” 

The Parent Bill of Rights requires that schools receive parent or guardian permission for students to participate in any type of survey assessment or questionnaire that could reveal mental or psychological problems of the student.

Because of that language, this also applies to suicide screeners.

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A suicide screener is different than a full risk assessment. The purpose of a screener is to determine the immediate risk of a crisis situation and is typically conducted prior to a full risk assessment. It is more vague and less intrusive than a full risk assessment.

“We would still need parent permission for a full risk assessment, but the screener would be the first step,” Ayers said. “You would do that first and then communicate with the parent.”

This process for handling students that are experiencing suicidal ideation is laid out by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction and is only now becoming a problem for school systems, because they are now required to contact and obtain permission from a parent prior to conducting the quick impact suicide screener.

According to Ayers, the screener involves asking some basic questions in order to address the suicidal ideation.

“If you all agree to sign this, it would go to the general assembly and show collectively, hopefully, many districts across the state are pushing for this technical change that would allow us to address students in need,” Ayers told the board. “Because ultimately … when a student is exhibiting these characteristics, I would want the practical things to occur to make sure that we’re keeping this child safe and alive.” 

The resolution says that in order to “quickly respond to prevent harm to students who present as a potential risk of suicide, the Jackson County Board of Education request the general assembly adopt an amendment to the Parents Bill of Rights that permit schools to conduct a suicide risk screener without prior parental consent or notice, so long as notice and the results of such screener are provided after the screener is conducted.” 

If the change is made through the General Assembly, the school system would still try to contact a student’s parent or guardian, but it would not delay the immediate screening process if contact could not be made. It would also still inform the parents of the results of the screening as quickly as possible.

“I think it’s important to reiterate one more time that the parents bill of rights in our opinion was not intended to cover suicide risk assessments,” said Board Attorney Chris Campbell. “But the way they wrote the law … it clearly applies to this.” 

The board of education unanimously approved the resolution, which will now be forwarded to the General Assembly. No changes to current policies or processes will be made unless the General Assembly addresses the resolution.

“We feel pretty optimistic if school districts will point this out to the General Assembly, they’ll address it,” said Campbell.

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