With Structures, Schools Can Help Save Student Lives

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With Structures Schools Can Help Save Student Lives

The opioid crisis and the rising rates of teenage suicide increase the expectations that school staff know their students well. Schools are where we see most young people every day, and can be expected to identify troubling patterns of behavior.

There are few teachers who would shun the chance to have close and positive relationships with their students. The impediment to close relationships rests not within the desires of the staff, but within the historic understaffing, under funding, and fragmented schedules of our public school system.

Instead of exhorting our teachers to do more and more, schools as systems of care can build in the following protocols, structures, and routines that create meaningful adult-student relationships, and allow students to know the various ways their schools can be supports in times of individual crises:

  • Display posters that describe the signs of substance. Identify specific staff members (most commonly nurses and counselors) who will listen with strict confidence to individual concerns, for both those who are using substances, and those who fear for others.
  • Develop and set aside time to practice a protocol for how teachers can immediately refer a student to the school health team if the teacher thinks a student is under the influence, or significantly depressed. The protocol should not requite teachers to accuse a student of having used substances. Instead, the protocol supports the teacher to list the behaviors the student is demonstrating and the need for a medical professional to be involved; e.g. “John, you are falling asleep and your speech is slurred. I have no ideas what is happening. In this situation all students go to the nurse, who can have a private conversation with you.”
  • Develop structures that encourage deeper and more long lasting student-teacher relationships. These structures can include looping with the same teacher through a year or more, having a robust advisory program in which the adult advisor stays with the same students through their years in the school, and investing in after-school programming that attracts a diverse segment of the student body.
  • Display posters around the school for students, identifying all the people and places in the school where they can get their needs met; e.g. “Worried about a friend?—see Ms. Rodrigues in room 402; Want to get help with a peer conflict?—see Mr. Shu in room 312…” Set aside time in a school assembly for students who have used these services to tell their stories and normalize the seeking of help.

Given the size of high schools, and student schedules that crisscross various departments, teachers must go far beyond their given responsibilities to contact all the other staff who also work with a troubled student. High school can consider these additional structures:

  • In addition to content-driven faculty teams, schedule grade level team meetings to share observations about individual students.
  • Provide staff with group email lists for each student’s teachers, counselors, advisors, administrators, and other direct service providers. This can allow any staff member who works with a student to share concerns and help identify patterns of behavior that otherwise would be veiled by the lack of staff communication.

For more resources on trauma, stress, or violence during Suicide Prevention Month, pick up Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress or Even on Your Worst Day, You Can Be a Student’s Best Hope.


Jeffrey Benson has had over forty years’ experience as a teacher, mentor, consultant, coach and school administrator. His books include, Hanging In– Strategies for Working with the Students Who Challenge Us Most, Ten Steps for Managing Change in Schools, and Teaching the Whole Teen: Everyday Practices that Promote Success and Resilience in School and Life. His website is www. Jeffreybenson.org, with links to all his articles, including the widely read “100 Repetitions.”