Used to shaping lives, teachers now must save them

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Sara Thornton, who is a learning support instructor, takes notes during a suicide-prevention presentation for teachers and administrators Monday at Prep Charter School in Philadelphia.

Physical science textbooks were stacked neatly on desks in Prep Charter’s hallways Monday, and parents held navy polos up to their kids’ frames, remarking on how much they’d grown.

Amid all the back-to-school buzz in the South Philly high school, though, a hundred teachers and administrators were reminded that many incoming students will be fighting inner battles in their classrooms this year.

In the auditorium, just after noon, presenters from Temple University’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine discussed the gantlet of depression, anxiety, bullying, and substance abuse that many teens run before getting out of school. Teachers took notes and nodded their heads as slides changed from symptoms to causes and, perhaps most important for them, how they can help decode them, figure out what’s mere angst and what’s suicidal.

When given the chance to ask questions, the faculty presented the complicated scenarios they face daily. Susan Lyons, a science teacher, said it’s difficult to gauge how serious teens are being when they make seemingly casual remarks about suicide in front of friends.

The teen might often blow it off with a laugh, she said. The friends may too. But what about a teacher?

“What’s the best way to handle that type of thing? It feels to me like a red alert,” Lyons said.

The same answer applied to many of the questions.

“To err on the side of caution is paramount,” said Mark Novitsky, a psychiatrist and an adjunct at Temple.

Camera icon WILLIAM THOMAS CAIN
Ruby Barghini, a psychiatry resident at Temple University Hospital, speaks about risk factors during a suicide-prevention presentation for teachers and administrators at Prep Charter.

Monday’s presentation is one of nearly two dozen that Michael’s Giving H.A.N.D.(Handling Anxiety Navigating Depression) hopes to give at schools in the region this year. The nonprofit was created by Ron Donatucci, Philadelphia’s longtime register of wills, and his son Ron Jr. in memory of Michael Donatucci, who took his life on July 15, 2016.

Michael Donatucci, 30, was a St. Joseph’s Preparatory School and University of Pennsylvania graduate who was working as the chief investment officer of the city’s pension fund when he died. In July, his father said his younger son suffered from anxiety nearly his entire life, despite all their efforts to help him.

“Don’t say, ‘Not my son,’ if your son has a problem,” Ron Donatucci said in July. “Two aspirins aren’t going to take care of it.”

Donatucci knew instinctively what statistics say is true: Many kids are dealing with these issues. Statistics show that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for youth, and the second-leading cause of death for people ages 18 to 34.

Ruby Barghini, a psychiatric resident at Temple, said teachers don’t need to worry about making diagnoses. Instead, she urged them to just notice when “something is wrong with a student.”

Teachers are long accustomed to bullying, but social media and cellphones have taken the subject far outside the classroom. Alison Larson, also a psychiatry resident at Temple, said that in 85 percent of bullying cases, no teachers or administrators intervened to stop them.

Teachers and counselors said, though, that they want to do more.

“Sometimes this will happen, but the bully won’t be using their name, and I try to tell the student every time, ‘If they’re not using their name, they’re not talking about you,’ ” said Jamond Hunt, a school counselor.

“Still, they know the student is talking about them. We can’t really do anything, because they’re not using their name.”

Chadwick Antonio, Prep Charter’s CEO, said discussions before the new school year often center on the nuts and bolts of curriculum, but he wants staffers to think beyond grades.

“We like to take a whole-student approach,” he said. “If they can  get good grades, that’s fantastic, but we’re concerned with even more than that.”