School and community programs emphasize suicide awareness

September marks Suicide Awareness Month, and Dickinson Center, Inc.'s Children's Prevention Services is conducting several events through its Signs of Suicide Program (SOS) in an effort to promote community awareness of the issue.Recently Jennifer Dippold, director of Children's Prevention Services; Tracey Meyers, SOS program supervisor for Elk County; and City of St. Marys Police Chief Todd Caltagarone met with St. Marys Area School District Superintendent Ann Kearney to discuss offering the "Protecting Kids Online" (PKO) program within the public schools this year. The "Protecting Kids Online" program is presented by the City of St. Marys Police Department and co-facilitated with topics from the SOS program. It was designed to teach students, at age-appropriate levels, to be aware of the dangers that can come with social networking, including emails, Facebook, MySpace and cell phones. It also deals with the ongoing and growing concerns surrounding bullying and cyberbullying through the use of portions of the SOS programming and true stories of bullying that have resulted in student suicides. The community-wide program is being held Wednesday, Sept. 28 beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the St. Marys Area High School auditorium. The event is free and open to the public. "I'm all for this. The more kids and parents we can give this information to, the better," Kearney said. "I don't think parents realize the dangers that lurk out there. They [students] get cell phones when they're 12 and this opens a whole world of dangers. My concern is that some parents are typically naive when it comes to these issues."This year marks the first year the PKO program is being offered in the public schools. It was previously presented at Elk County Catholic High School, St. Marys Catholic Elementary School and St. Leo Elementary School in Ridgway, and an adult program was presented at the Community Education Council building in downtown St. Marys."The Protecting Kids Online pairs SOS programming with the credibility the police department can offer," Dippold said.Dippold said this is the first full year for the collaboration of both programs.Caltagarone and fellow police officer D.J. Marconi are certified to teach the program, which typically lasts anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours for the adult presentation.As part of the adult program, additional information is presented which may not be suitable for youngsters. "The idea is to see these things before they become something serious," Caltagarone said, referring to the warning signs parents should be aware of. "We emphasize third-party reporting by the student body because they usually see it [problems] first.""This program helps teach them responsible use of social networking and teaches parents how to monitor them," Kearney added. "We want to give parents training for the 21st century and [help them understand] that your digital footprint remains there forever."The SOS Prevention Program is an evidence-based curriculum presented in DVD format, which is followed up with a brief written screening tool or follow-up activities designed to reinforce the program's message of "A.C.T."-- Acknowledge, Care, Tell. Dickinson staff present the program and provide supportive counseling or referrals to appropriate services for at-risk/high-risk students based on their answers to the screening questions.