The Santa Barbara Unified School District experienced 56 “suicide incidences” in the first semester of school, according to Assistant Superintendent Frann Wageneck.

Those cases were made up of 29 cases of suicide ideation, 17 interrupted suicides, three aborted suicides, six drug overdoses and one classified as “other.”

“We have a public health crisis in the United States,” Wageneck said. “We have a public health crisis in our community.”

The number of suicide incidences was down overall from 2017-18, when the total number was 70, including one case in which a student took their life. Every other category is down from the 2018 school year, except interrupted suicides, which jumped from nine to 17. 

“The good news is that we have systems in place to both prevent and intervene in suicidal behavior,” Wageneck said.

Wageneck said the district last year created a single position, made up of two people — “crisis care specialists.” The specialists respond when a student has expressed “a desire, a plan or immediate attempt to commit suicide”; if a student shares that they are self-harming; if administrators need help with a threat situation; and “if a student has escalating behavior and there are concerns that it will lead to a crisis situation.”

“We had 86 crises in 90 days,” Wageneck said. “That’s nearly one per day.”

The district also since 2018 has been providing the “signs of suicide” curriculum to seventh-, ninth- and 12th-graders. The program stresses that depression is treatable and that students should notify an adult if they or believe others are considering suicide. Wageneck noted that 2017-18 was the Thomas Fire and debris flow, and there was a social media threat on campus.

So far this year, 163 students in grades transitional-kindergarten through sixth received on-campus services; 29 students were referred to private counseling.

In grades 7-12, 232 students received mental health services on campus; 246 were referred to private, off-site counseling. 

Student trustee Dawson Kelly offered his perspective based on his experience in schools.

“What I have seen personally is there is a culture of addiction and unhealthy coping mechanisms that I see on a daily basis,” the San Marcos High School student said. “We are normalizing people abusing certain substances so casually, and I see it in everyday conversation.”

He said the district needs to incorporate more aspects of mental health education into the curriculum.

“From what I see, we are not valuing mental health education enough,” Kelly said. “We are valuing math that we won’t really use in our real life. High levels of math, high levels of history, high levels of English. We need to prepare students for a world that is not yet created. We are not doing this. We need them to feel heard and less alone.”

He urged the board to do more.

“The steps you are taking are good, but they are not enough, and I think we can all agree on that,” Kelly said. 

Click here for suicide prevention information and resources that are available 24/7.

The National Suicide Prevention Line is available 24/7 at 800.273.8255, and the county’s 24/7 Behavioral Wellness Access Line can be reached by calling 888.868.1649 to access a counselor or mobile crisis resources anytime. 

Mask Debate

COVID-19 cases have dropped dramatically in schools since the height of the Omicron variant in January.

Between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, 134 students and 28 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. That’s down from 490 students and 64 staff members between Jan. 14 and Jan. 20. 

“I am really happy to see our cases are going down,” board member Virginia Alvarez said.

Board member Wendy Sims-Moten added: “It’s good to see those rates falling and getting to where we have to go.”

Some members of the public called in to urge the district to drop the mask mandate indoors. Gov. Gavin Newsom said he plans to lift the indoor mask mandate next week. District Chief Operating Officer Steve Venz, however, said the district takes its direction from the California Department of Public Health, and it has not given direction yet to lift the mask mandate.

Several students called in to say they support the mask mandates.

“I support all the mask and vaccine mandates,” Dos Pueblos High School student Judah Nisen said.

He also objected to parents who called in before the prior meeting and suggested he was being brainwashed.

“I can assure you I am not brainwashed and I do critically think,” Nisen said. “All of the evidence that is peer reviewed and credible points toward masks and vaccines being safe and effective, and no one I have met has shown any discomfort in wearing masks.”

Parent activist Justin Shores said the masks don’t allow students to breathe freely and that they disrupt learning because students can’t see their teachers’ mouths moving when learning to read. 

“Please end the mask mandate,” Shore said. “Give the parents choice, at least.”

Student trustee Kelly also took exception to some of the other parents who called in accusing students of having their mask support “scripted” for them.

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume that students are being fed information and are reading scripts that are produced by adults,” Kelly said. “I think we all know that students are speaking for themselves, and the students that are coming to these meetings to speak on their own experiences are authentic and not reading off scripts or controlled by adults.”

Map Approved

The “Scenario A” map approved by the Santa Barbara school board maintains a five-member board.

The “Scenario A” map approved by the Santa Barbara school board maintains a five-member board. (Courtesy map)

The school board approved a map for district elections that will likely go into effect for the November election.

The board voted 4-0, with board member Laura Capps absent, to approve “Scenario A.” The map maintains a five-member board. Currently, board members are elected at-large.

In 2018, the board voted to move to district elections amid the threat of lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act

According to the California Department of Education, Santa Barbara Unified is about 60% Latino and 33% white.

The district elections are designed to allow Latinx neighborhoods to elect a representative who represents their local schools and neighborhood, and therefore increase Latinx representation on the board.

The board currently has two Mexican-American women. Since 1970, there have been only seven Latinos elected to the Santa Barbara school board, according to Alvarez. 

The map must now go to the Santa Barbara County Committee on School District Organization on Feb. 28 for a final vote.

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.