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Teens in Toronto taught to look for warning signs of depression, suicide

MUSICAL INTERLUDE — The Toronto Board of Education heard Thursday from Hank Bodnar, one of many sixth graders at Toronto Junior-Senior High School who have been learning to play the ukulele in music appreciation classes taught by Kara Wockley. (Photo by Warren Scott)

TORONTO — Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And Toronto Junior-Senior High School is partnering with Columbus-based Nationwide Children’s Hospitals to show teens what they can do to help, members of the Toronto school board learned at their regular meeting Thursday.

Superintendent Maureen Taggart said through NCH’s Signs of Suicide Prevention Program, students in seventh and 10th grades are learning possible signs of depression and suicidal thoughts that may be displayed or expressed by their peers.

Taggart said the program teaches the youth when they suspect a peer is depressed or suicidal to A.C.T., or Acknowledge there is a serious concern; show the person they Care; and Tell a trusted adult.

She said following classroom instruction conducted by NHS staff on two days, all of the participating students underwent a brief screening designed to identify at-risk students, with further evaluation and counseling made available for those who need it.

Taggart said parents of most students in the two grades gave consent for their children to take part, and some suggested friends they were concerned about who may not have been in the two grades.

Taggart said she was pleased so many teens felt comfortable participating, adding NHS staff were impressed that counseling was already available through two agencies working with the school district.

“I think overall our students are very empathetic and want to help their friends. They engaged in the program and took it very seriously,” she said.

Taggart said she learned of the program through her daughter, a school social worker in Columbus, and plans to offer it each year.

“If it helps to save one life, it’s worth it,” Taggart said.

The board also heard from Jill Fisher, Alfonsina Scaffidi and Nikki Fisher,three fifth grade teachers who discussed the benefits of the Big Ideas math program being implemented for grades kindergarten through fifth for the first time this year.

The trio said the program includes teaching aids that appeal to pupils with different learning styles, including those who absorb the most information visually and those who learn through hands-on activities.

Scaffidi said parents have told her their children have been enjoying math when they didn’t previously.

They said it involves instructional videos, online activities and other subjects, such as literature and music.

Also appearing before the board was music teacher Kara Wockley, who related how she is using the ukulele to teach students about various aspects of music. She said the small Hawaiian instrument is easy to handle and students have enjoyed playing it so much, they have expressed interest in performing short concerts.

Wockley said she began using the ukulele in her quarterly sixth grade music classes in 2018 and response was so positive that she added it this year to the elective music appreciation courses offered to the high school students.

She invited sixth grader Hank Bodnar to play “Happy Birthday” on the instrument for the board and shared a video of her high school students playing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

Wockley also introduced high school students Liza Smith and Liberty Kimball, who spoke about they have enjoyed the ukulele instruction.

In other business, Board President Jay Foster noted arrival of Chromebooks for some students has been delayed until November.

Following the meeting, Taggart explained Chromebooks were furnished to those students who have chosen to attend school online and to the district’s high school students, who had them in the past.

She said the delay was in Chromebooks for younger students at school that were expected to arrive later this month. Taggart said until they do, the students will be sharing computers that will be disinfected between uses.

It also was announced school lunches and breakfasts will continue to be offered at no cost to all students through Dec. 31 or until state funds run out.

Laura Irwin, the district’s food service director, said the free meals became available through the state when schools were closed by the pandemic in March.

Irwin added she’s secured a state grant for fruit and vegetable snacks to be served to the elementary pupils beginning in October.

On Thursday the board also:

¯ Accepted the resignation of Bobbie Hood, a cook at Toronto Junior-Senior High School who is retiring after 23 years in the school district.

¯ Approved a contract with Jefferson County Juvenile Court for school liaison services at a cost of $2,500. Taggart said in addition to attending to truant students, officials with the court will be checking on students engaged with virtual learning to ensure they aren’t having any problems.

¯ Approved the $19,230 purchase of a new server to provide a link between video surveillance equipment in the elementary and junior-senior high schools; and the $8,345 purchase of classroom printers for grades 6-12.

¯ Approved payment of $6,396 to EMS Linq Inc. for maintenance of the school’s website and about $5,000 for repairs to the kitchen at the junior-senior high school.

(Scott can be contacted at wscott@heraldstaronline.com.)

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