After a series of student deaths by suicide earlier this year, the Fairfax County school system held a community summit Saturday to promote student mental health.
The Community Conversation on Teen Stress, held at Hayfield Secondary School in Alexandria and open to the public, provided resources for students, parents and community members. The event also solicited their input on the school system’s suicide prevention efforts and what shape they should take moving forward.
“Here, you feel like you’re not alone,” said Langley High School principal Matthew Ragone as he navigated his way to one of the more than 60 breakout sessions. “Everyone has issues, everyone has ideas, everyone has solutions, and we can bring them together.”
Two students at Langley died by apparent suicide within two days in early February. These deaths were followed by the deaths of two Woodson High School students by suicide later that month.
Saturday’s summit represented the latest piece in ongoing efforts by the school system to strengthen their mental health resources in the wake of these tragedies. Sessions included spotlights on county and school services, workshops on reducing teen stress and even yoga demonstrations.
Ragone attended one session on Fairfax County schools’ suicide procedures, which he has become all too familiar with this year. The session started with a presentation detailing the school system’s response to a student suicide, then evolved into a discussion of the process and where it could be strengthened.
“The more talking we do about it the better,” Ragone said. “We’re doing the best that we can do, but this it’s only the beginning. We need to move forward from what we get out of today.”
That thread ran throughout the day, as speakers and attendees noted that the conversations begun at Hayfield needed to continue throughout next school year.
“We all felt it important to come together and open the dialogue regarding the wellness of our children,” Superintendent Garza said in a video message to kick off the event Saturday morning.
Though Garza could not attend the event due to a visit from her parents, she announced in the video that students will soon be able to text the school system’s mental health helpline, which right now is limited to receiving phone calls.
Starting June 1, students at Langley and Woodson will be able to text the helpline, and the capability will be opened to all students starting next school year, Garza said, another step toward a more tightly woven support net for students.
About 500 people were in the Hayfield auditorium at the start of the event, listening to Garza’s video message and the keynote speaker, psychologist Brad Sachs. Many of these school employees, parents, students and other concerned community members hope to see the dialogue from the summit blossom not only at the county level but also in their own homes and classrooms.
Helene Copeland, a mother of a Westfield High School student and a Fairfax County teacher, said she and her daughter can have difficulty communicating their emotions, and the workshops were helping them get on the same page.
“I think there was definitely a huge need for something like this,” Copeland said. “Parents need new perspectives, and this allows me to take in ideas I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.”
Her daughter Nia chipped in: “I’m actually surprised by how much I’ve learned. Hopefully they’ll have this again next year.”