Educating the town's students is not the only role of the school district. Protecting the safety of students from outside threats and from harming themselves is also a top priority, school officials said this week.
At Monday's Board of Education meeting, the district's revised student suicide-prevention and intervention policy and administrative regulations were presented to board members. The revisions were not prompted by any particular incident, administrators said, but the topic is timely.
Westport's proposed policy changes come on the heels of a tragedy in nearby Greenwich. Several weeks ago, Greenwich High School sophomore committed suicide after the first day of classes. Bartlomiej "Bart" Palosz, 15, shot himself, and relentless bullying by his peers is suspected as a contributing factor in his decision to take his life.
The Westport proposal outlines procedures for handling a student that may be at risk of committing suicide and outreach to that student's parents or guardians. The policy also contains a confidential Crisis Intervention Form that would detail any events, precipitating factors or assessment findings.
Michael Rizzo, the district's director of pupil services, opened the presentation by putting the issue of youth suicide into perspective. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of young people in the United States behind accidents and homicides, said Rizzo, who called the proposed policy "extremely comprehensive."
Despite the affluence and resources available in Westport, teens in the community are not immune to life's struggles, which could lead to thoughts of suicide.
"Sad to say, this was not just an academic exercise ... It's just not an uncommon occurrence," said Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon, referring to stressors in the life of teens -- such as eating disorders, addictions and other at-risk behaviors, and not to suicide rates in the town. "Those issues have increased as our population has increased," Landon said.
He said the school district must be proactive in addressing situations involving young people who could be a danger to themselves.
"It is more common than we would want it to be," Rizzo said.
In March 2011, an eighth-grade Bedford Middle School student, then 13 years old, posted a YouTube video pleading for an end to the bullying that she said she had suffered. In the video, which went viral on the Internet site, the girl did not speak but held up a series of hand-lettered signs with messages like: "I am bullied."
The school board's review of the revised anti-suicide policy included discussion on bullying and the use of social media to bully peers, as well as drug and alcohol abuse and provisions for school administration to intervene when incidents occur after school hours off school grounds.
Superintendent of Schools Elliott Landon shared with the board and about a dozen parents who attended the meeting that a photo was recently posted online of a Westport student holding a weapon. He did not say whether the photo was posted on Facebook or another site, adding it was not clear whether the object was a real gun or a toy facsimile, or whether it was a joke or if the person intended harm to self or others. But, Landon said, "There was a history associated with it," so school officials were compelled to respond.
The administrator who became aware of the photo immediately called the principal, who called the police and the superintendent. Police responded to the person's home and took appropriate action, Landon said, but did not elaborate.
Police Capt. Samuel Arciola would not confirm such an incident occurred, however, he did tell the Westport News, "We do deal with social media incidents when they are brought to our attention." He said the Police Department and school district work in partnership.
"It's not an everyday occurrence (but) if there was an incident that the school administration brought to the attention of the police department we work closely with them to resolve the incident and bring closure to the concern," said Arciola, who was not at Monday's meeting.
Valerie Babich, coordinator of psychological services said the role of the school district is very specific. Staff should respond to warning signs, immediately contact parents or guardians and follow up with counseling. She said teachers should notify the principal if they see in a student's writing or artwork any signs of potential risk. Staff would interview the student to assess the risk and determine if it is serious or a joke that was misinterpreted, and contact parents to see what might be going on in that student's life.
Suzanne Levasseur, supervisor of school health services, said prevention is an important component and students should be taught that they cannot handle this issue alone. If they recognize risk factors in a fellow student they should immediately reach out to a school official, she said.
Board member Michael McGovern called the policy "difficult but necessary." He suggested that the policy revisions be shared with the Police Department because such issues affect the entire community, not just one school. "This is a public safety issue ... Getting their input on the policy change would be helpful," he said.
The proposed policy would not automatically increase the need for staff. Rizzo said the school district is fortunate to have the psychological staff and resources it has. "Right now we're in good shape. We've been able to meet the needs of our students," he said.
Board Chairwoman Elaine Whitney said the board will examine the final language and vote on this proposal at its October meeting.