District to implement new suicide prevention policy

Juniors+Haley+Benson+and+Chandler+Randol+%28left%29+pose+with+Governor+Jay+Nixon%2C+his+wife+Georganne+Wheeler+Nixon+and+other+state+officials+with+the+proclamation.

Juniors Haley Benson and Chandler Randol (left) pose with Governor Jay Nixon, his wife Georganne Wheeler Nixon and other state officials with the proclamation.

Trisha Chaudhary

Juniors Haley Benson (far left) and Chandler Randol (left) pose with Governor Jay Nixon and wife Georganne Wheeler Nixon and other state officials with the proclamation.

In May of 2010, while most West Junior High School freshmen were dreaming of the last day of school and idly sitting through classes, current RBHS juniors Chandler Randol and Haley Benson were working hard to create a policy that would help minimize teen suicide in Columbia’s youth.

Teacher Chris Fischer gave his ninth grade government class, which Benson and Randol were both in, the option of completing a project for either the statewide “We the People” competition or “Project Citizen.”

While “We the People” was a speech competition, “Project Citizen” required students to address problems in their community and create public policies as solutions to these problems. After choosing “Project Citizen,” Benson and Randol’s group decided on teen suicide as their community issue.

“We decided to pick teen suicide mainly because [though] it wasn’t a very original idea, it still mattered,” Benson said.  “And it’s been growing around Columbia for a while now and nothing has been forcefully done to help stop it.”

The project required the students to research current policies on the issue and find way to better these policies. Currently in 6th through 8th grade, schools are only required to give 100 minutes of instruction regarding signs of suicide and prevention methods; however, Benson and Randol did not think this was sufficient. They transformed the policy so rather than 100 minutes, 450 minutes of suicide education would be mandatory. This would translate to one 50-minute session each month in order to devote more time to the issue.

“With most students, even me, [they] just ignore [the educational sessions about suicide]…and as soon as the [instructors] leave they’re not going to think about it,” Benson said. “So we decided that if we…reinforce that maybe once a month…then kids will be more in tune to how depression and how suicide really work and how they really can identity it in their friends and in their family and in anyone around the school.”

Fischer allowed one of his groups to attend the competition in Jefferson City to actually present their issue and policy at the “Project Citizen” competition. Though Benson and Randol’s group had not originally planned on competing, once they found out that no other groups were interested, they decided to take up the opportunity. After all, what did they have to lose?

Initially, “Project Citizen” was supposed to have a regional competition, but because of the scarce entries, all groups were put through to the next level. Benson and Randol were the only two of the eight people in their group that were available to attend the competition in Jefferson City. Winning was the last thing on their minds as they entered the competition, challenging at least 10 other teams who were presenting topics as diverse as teen suicide to seat-belt enforcement.

Being the only group from WJHS and the only ones presenting on teen suicide, Benson and Radol were nervous and intimidated; however, they remained confident in their policy. And their faith wasn’t misplaced – Benson and Randol won second place at the competition.

“We were really shocked,” Randol said. “We did not expect [to get second place] at all. It was really humbling.”

Still in awe at their unanticipated victory, Benson and Randol arrived back at school an hour early and spontaneously decided to visit the superintendent and discuss their policy. They made the short walk from WJHS to his office and simply asked his secretary if he was available. They were in luck. Dr. Belcher, the CPS superintendent was not only available, but after hearing a little about their policy and project, he invited them to pitch it to the board at the next policy meeting.

This simple government project was turning out to be a huge success for Benson and Randol. At the meeting they pitched their new suicide policy to the teachers and officials, and once again, it seemed to be a hit. Everyone seemed to approve and agree with their terms, and now the policy will be implemented in grades six through eight starting in 2013.

Though it felt great to win, the real prize for Benson and Randol was knowing that they had aided in preventing teen suicide. Their policy had the potential to save lives, and that was the most important thing.

Suicide rates have “been pretty high recently,” Randol said. “And hopefully even if [our policy] doesn’t help kids in Columbia Public Schools, later on in life they could help somebody else.”

By Trisha Chaudhary