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Mother of victim urges vigilance in suicide prevention

GRAND FORKS — The Grand Forks School Board is considering adding "work sessions" to its regular schedule of monthly meetings in response, at least in part, to remarks made by a mother who lost her son to suicide in April.

Board member Amber Flynn recommended at the Monday, July 10, meeting that the board should consider adding a work session, possibly every other month, to learn more about selected topics.

"We have areas, as we heard tonight—mental health and suicide, nutrition and food waste, bullying in schools" that warrant more attention, study and discussion with experts, Flynn said.

Earlier in the board meeting, during a time reserved for citizen comment on matters not on the agenda, Tina Randle of Reynolds, N.D., along with her daughter Alyssa Black, criticized school officials' actions the day after the death of her son, Jonathan Black, who was a sophomore at Central High School.

On that day, some students "wanted to take time" at a pep rally to acknowledge the death, but administrators "wouldn't allow that," Randle said. The rally went on as scheduled, "it was business as usual."

She also criticized a statement by Superintendent Larry Nybladh, that was aired as part of a WDAZ-TV report a day after the suicide, explaining that school administrators are legally restricted in their public responses when a suicide occurs, so as to not encourage "copy cat" behavior.

"We need people who will be there for our kids, and not for a job ... people who will help kids feel less ashamed of what they suffer from," Randle said.

Alyssa Black said, "My brother suffered from depression, anxiety and ADHD." She urged board members to "be proactive, rather than reactive."

Both mother and daughter said the issue of suicide must be brought into the open and discussed.

"(Jonathan) was sick with a disease many thought should be kept quiet," Randle told the board.

Three students in the Grand Forks School District have died by suicide in the last year, she said. "We have to change this."

In an interview on Friday, July 14, Randle said more education is needed for every school employee.

"Teachers, counselors, principals, all administrators, librarians—any one of them could be the one to save a child by knowing what to look for," she said.

At its regular June meeting, the School Board devoted nearly an hour to a presentation by school counselors and other resident experts on issues related to student mental health, suicide prevention and response, Nybladh said.

"As a superintendent, I'm very proud of our counselors and other school leaders who've spent well over a decade trying to become experts on this subject," he said. "And I know our schools are looked to as one of the school systems in the state and region that have experts available, not just for us but for other regional school districts, when they need support for incidents like this."

Nybladh said his public comments after the suicide were "in line with all the protocols that are laid out by our district's plan that are based upon national-level experts that have devised these tool kits for schools to use."

"This is a communitywide issue," he said, "and our entire community needs to embrace this topic of mental health awareness and suicide prevention. It's very critical that we do so as a community."

In an email, he said further:

"It took great courage and personal resolve for Mrs. Randle to come before the school board to express herself in the midst of her unimaginable grief in the tragic loss of her child. Everyone across the school district has the utmost sympathy for her and her family.

"As someone who has myself had to deal with the topic of suicide in my own personal life, I have extreme empathy for her sense of loss. I know all school officials and personnel have the interest of our students first and foremost."

Nybladh cited the district's suicide prevention programs and said its counselors and leaders will continue to treat the problem seriously.

"It does take a community to address these issues and I, and others across the district, welcome all the voices who are interested in contributing to addressing these issues and seeking continuous improvement."

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