Editors note: This story has been updated to show there were 110 suicide risk assessments.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has so far this year seen an increased number of suicide risk assessments and referrals to the Office of Children’s Services compared to the previous year.
As of last week, the district has conducted 110 suicide risk assessments on students this year, Assistant Superintendent of Instruction John O’Brien told the school board during a work session on Monday. Last year, the school district reached a record high of 140 suicide risk assessments for the full year. Suicide risk assessments are done on students who have exhibited suicidal ideation.
In recent years, the district has been working to get more counselors and psychologists in schools to help alleviate growing issues with students’ mental health. O’Brien said he was hoping the district would be able to fund four additional counselors, two for the central peninsula, and one each for the southern peninsula and eastern peninsula, which would cost $400,000.
“Administratively and fiscally, on what’s going on with the state, the board was reluctant to come up with an additional $400,000 for those counselors,” O’Brien said at the work session.
The district uses the number of OCS referrals and suicide risk assessments as indicators of student mental health. O’Brien said recent data for the number of referrals and assessments was troubling.
“I hate to continually bring you this kind of data, but it is real,” O’Brien said. “Our school psychologists, counselors and principals, especially schools that don’t have counselors, are the ones who are on the front lines of students dealing with crisis.”
O’Brien said the number of OCS referrals this year has exceeded numbers compared to 2016.
“At this point in the year we already have almost as many OCS referrals as we have had in years past for the entire year,” O’Brien said. “We’re only one semester into the year now.”
School board member Mike Illg said he is going to keep pushing for more counselors in schools.
“I would like to see (more counselors) in the budget, even if it means we have to cut something else,” Illg said. “Our schools are literally on fire, internally. We owe it to these kids to help them where we can.
“This is coming at us hard and fast and it’s only going to get worse if we do not provide the services they need in our schools. $400,00 is a lot of money, but what’s the long game on this?”
The school district is beginning to work on their FY2020 budget. It is unknown if they will fund additional counselors.