In response to a cluster of suicides by teenagers, with three at Rapid City Central High School in the 2007/2008 school year, the Networks of Support approach was developed as a comprehensive prevention model. In the 30 months prior to March 2008, 14 teenage people died by suicide in Pennington County. Between September of 2007 and September of 2011, our school endured 28 deaths. Within the student population, these deaths were attributed to: suicides, risky decisions and to disease such as Cystic Fibrosis and cancer. We also lost staff members to cancer and heart attacks. In August and September of 2011, we had three students, one staff member and two police officers that worked with our students die. Our liaison officer was also shot and wounded in the confrontation that killed the two police officers.
As a staff and student body, we were good at attending funerals and dealing with crisis. However, we were exhausted.
Adult driven programming was clearly not effective and I saw a need for student driven prevention that had their voices as the foundation for the programming. The first training for Peer Leaders was held in November of 2008. In the spring of 2009, Peer Leaders were used as the foundation for our school’s mentoring program. Since the spring of 2009, over 1,000 students have been trained as Peer Leaders. In addition, beginning in 2011, all 9th and 11th grade students have participated in a new prevention program based on experiential learning in October of their school year.
In the 30 months following March 2008, Rapid City had one teenage suicide. This is not a number to celebrate, but it does show the power of peer led programming in regards to prevention. Compared to the last 10 years, 2010 had the highest number of adult suicides. There was one teenage suicide in September of 2011. There have been zero teenage suicides, or any student deaths, since September of 2011 in Rapid City. In Pennington County, 50 percent of suicides are in the 14-35 age groups. Pennington County averages twice the national average for deaths by suicide.
During the 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16 school years, the daily attendance rate for freshmen was over 95 percent. During this time frame, peer mentors supported 24 student led groups. All freshmen participated in two prevention trainings and had peer mentors available for academic tutoring and social/emotional mentoring.
During the same time frame, our school experienced a higher daily attendance rate and graduation rate, reduced crime and a high level of civic engagement and volunteerism. Beyond the 24 student led groups, mentors organized 100 student volunteers as Area Coordinators for the Special Olympics and the 300 bowlers. In addition, they planned and implemented a Service Learning project that provided a Safe Halloween for over 12 thousand people in Rapid City that involved 300 student volunteers along with unlimited hours spent in the community providing service.
Most importantly, the graduating class of 2016 was the first class in many years not to experience a death of a classmate. A milestone worth noting and completely attributable to the power of Peer Leaders and their positive influence within their social networks.
Dr. Peter Wyman, University of Rochester, conducted a study on the peer program in Rapid City. His findings showed the students who were mentored had significantly higher connectedness to school, a higher level of engagement at school and a significant increase in the total number of trusted adults named and the number of students saying they had a trusted adult. The students also reported lower maladaptive coping attitudes, were less likely to endorse use of negative coping strategies and had positive coping norms around rejecting codes of silence.
Connectedness is considered to be a key factor in a student’s success in school, yet little or no time is spent discussing or developing programming that addresses this issue. Building connectedness to other peers and adults was achieved in our school through the use of peer leaders. The focus is not on a targeted group of students but building support networks for all students.
This approach was designed and is implemented as a way for students to build an environment of support networks in which they feel safe to discuss concerns about themselves and for others. By implementing the correct Connection Mechanism, students feel connected to their school environment and empowered to use their voice for self-advocacy. It will also encourage rejecting codes of silence while building positive connections to trusted adults.
Even though the Networks of Support approach is not specifically just a suicide, bullying or domestic violence prevention program, the impact of this comprehensive approach has had positive results with these issues. The foundational purpose of the Networks of Support approach is to build positive connections within a community. By implementing a system, supported by research and sound practices, that promotes Collaboration through thoughtfully planned Prevention and Connection Activities, cultural change is possible which will result in lower maladaptive decision-making by students. Simply, it is the promotion of healthy decision-making that will support the wellness of the individual by building positive and supportive connections.
The reduction of maladaptive decisions by the students at Central High School are directly related to these Connection Mechanisms. Based on the results of the study of the peer mentoring program at Central High School, the Peer Leader program has proven to be an effective prevention program for suicide and risky decision-making such as the use of drugs and alcohol.
This Networks of Support manual will provide the framework for: 1) Creating a System of Change that promotes Collaboration and Cultural Change and 2) the development and training of Peer leaders.
The Networks of Support manual will act as a template to understand:
- The research supporting connectedness and Peer Leadership.
- The theory supporting Creating a System of Change.
- The Immersion Activities that create the connections.
- How to develop and train Peer Leaders.
- How to develop and sustain a positive culture change.