Last Updated on July 28, 2022 by Michelle Ball
By Michelle Ball, Sacramento California Expulsion, Special Education, sports/CIF, College, Education and School Attorney/Lawyer for Students since 1995
California schools can be places of great joy, and terrible sorrow for students. We all know that students really can have it rough, and sometimes they don’t talk to their parents to let them know they are suffering. California public schools must, per state law, have a school Suicide Awareness Policy, which includes training for staff about students who may be suicidal.
School Suicide Awareness Policy Mandatory in Middle and High Schools
School districts are legally obligated to have a student suicide policy in all schools where seventh-twelfth graders attend, including. junior and high schools and K-8 schools if they cover seventh grade up.
Mandates for Elementary Students, Sixth Grade and Below
Students in K-sixth grades must be addressed with a “policy on pupil suicide prevention” which addresses “suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.”
“High Risk” Students Needs Must Be Addressed in Policy
The school suicide policy must address the needs of students who are considered in “high-risk” of suicide.
1) Youth bereaved by suicide. [e.g. someone they know killed themselves]
2) Youth with disabilities, mental illness, or substance use disorders.
3) Youth experiencing homelessness or in out-of-home settings, such as foster care.
4) Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning youth.
Training for Staff and Notification of Suicide Prevention Services Must Be Provided
The school suicide prevention policy must contain training guidelines for school staff and information on when and how to inform families of student suicide prevention services.
Parent Notification of Suicidal Statements Missing From Law
One glaring omission in the law is a mandate to inform parents when a student expresses suicidal thoughts. So, although a Suicide Awareness Policy may be in effect, that does not mean parents will be informed.
Education Code 215 does state that the policy must “at a minimum, address procedures related to suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention.” What this means is left up to individual Districts.
Students May Be Referred for Emergency 5150 Psychiatric Evaluations Without Parent Consent for Suicidal Statements
Additionally, sometimes schools report students to mental health authorities for an involuntary psychiatric suicide evaluation if they think the student presents a danger to themselves.
Transportation to a hospital after this suicide referral can take place with no warning to parents (called a “5150 hold” see Welfare and Institutions Code §5150). Often parents don’t discover the student is being evaluated until they hear that an ambulance is at school taking the student away. Or, they may get a call from the hospital where a student was transported after they expressed suicidal thoughts or intent.
Special Needs Students Can Also Be Referred for Psychiatric Evaluation of Suicidal Statements
Students referred for psychiatric evaluation of suicidal statements at school can be general education students or special needs students. I have had many worried parents who found their special needs child (usually a student with communication deficits) was shipped off by their school for evaluation. This can occur with no call to a parent first, after an allegedly alarming communication. Child Protective Services (CPS) may also become involved.
Put Issues with Insincere Suicidal Statements in IEP Plan if Known
It is important that the school support team (IEP team) be notified if a student with special needs may commonly make suicidal-seeming statements which are not sincere.
For example, a special needs student may suffer from communication difficulties which manifest with outbursts of “I am going to kill myself!” The parents and medical personnel may know this is just the way the student expresses himself. However, if the school is unaware, the student could quickly be carted away for medical evaluation.
Insincere Suicide Statements Noted in IEP and Handlings May Not Be Honored
There unfortunately is no guarantee that the school will implement these supports if something happens, in breach of the student’s IEP plan. However, it is better to make these issues known in advance, to prevent a student from being carted away without their parents consent.
It is a sad day for parents when a child is moved to a psychiatric ward without forewarning, as the impacts can be devastating for a student and their family. Yes, schools should act on true suicide threats, but parents rights to provide medical or other care must be balanced into the mix. It is a tough wire to walk for all concerned.
Parents Should Be Involved If Possible In Developing Suicide Plans and Policies As Stakeholders
As the legal codes do not define what should go into the school suicide prevention policy, but identifies that “stakeholders” must be involved in developing the policy, parents should be included in a policy’s development and improvement.
Parents may want to research their district/school policy and see if the policy includes a notification to PARENTS of issues that arise.
Communication with School May Need to Be Parent-Initiated
If the policy lacks notification of suicidal statements to parents, communication with the school on what to do if any suicide issues come up, may be necessary.
For example, some parents may already have a family doctor or therapist they use for the student. At the parents discretion, parents may communicate this to the school and what the school should do if something arises.
Parents Should Insist On Notification of Suicidal Statements
If the school suicide policy does not include notice to parents, parents may be completely unaware of a suicidal communication from the student. This can lead to devastating consequences if the student acts on their suicide threats.
Simply, if parents are not notified, they cannot act to help their child, and may not know of the student’s suicidal statements or cries for help until it is too late.
Schools and Parents Need to Work Together to Help Students In Need
Ultimately, students need some monitoring in school and competent, thoughtful communication to their families who love them when suicidal statements arise.
Parents, schools, and all those who are responsible for them, can’t help suicidal students if they don’t know what is going on. As such, parents may want to make sure they are part of the school notification loop before it is too late.
Student bullying-prevention lawyer Michelle Ball assists parents when students targeted at school. As a Sacramento California attorney, Michelle can address matters statewide including in Redding, Turlock, Daly City, Salinas, Sausalito, South San Francisco, Roseville, Elk Grove, Manhattan Beach, and many other locations in California.