For months, Matt and Rosie Graham tried to get help for their daughter Anie’s depression.

They turned to her middle school in Lewiston, her regular doctor and local mental health providers. They got sympathy, but few answers. When 13-year-old Anie wrote about suicide in class in May, the school notified her parents and sent her home with her mother. That night, Anie died by suicide.

“So much I didn’t know back then,” her father said. “We put so much faith into counselors and the school and the medical system, and it just didn’t pan out for us.”

The Grahams’ experience last year led to a new law requiring school districts to adopt suicide prevention protocols for the 2018-19 school year, including policies about how to intervene when a child expresses suicidal thoughts. Only about 25 percent of districts have such protocols in place now.

Last week, two days after the bill became law, a student death in Scarborough again raised questions about school policies on suicide intervention.

Dan Mercer had been aware his son was thinking about suicide. But it wasn’t until after Sam Mercer took his life Friday that his father learned about at least two occasions when school staff did not notify him about their own concerns. In one incident, just one week before his son’s death, Dan Mercer said the school did not contact him because his son had turned 18.

Scarborough school officials have not responded to questions about those incidents. Repeated requests for copies of existing policies or training materials have not been answered.

At least four Maine superintendents said parental notification is standard practice in their districts, whether they have formal policies in place or not, and regardless of the student’s age.

The new law does not require parental notification every time a student expresses suicidal thoughts. That provision was stricken from the initial bill after warnings that, in some cases, notifying a parent could do more harm than good.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine warned lawmakers during a public hearing on the bill against mandating courses of action for every child at risk of self-harm.

“What works for one child may not work for another,” said Meagan Sway of the ACLU, noting that parental notification can be especially tricky for students who identify as LGBTQ and whose parents are not supportive of their identity.

Disability Rights Maine also presented testimony saying that guidance should be more nuanced and that parents should be notified unless “it is apparent that such notification will exacerbate the situation. It is important to allow trained professional staff some flexibility in these highly sensitive situations.”

Matt Graham said he appreciated the edits to the original version of the bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat. “It made it easier for schools to implement,” Graham said.

EARLIER LAW CALLED FOR TRAINING

In April 2013, Gov. Paul LePage signed a bill into law that requires all of the state’s public school personnel to complete suicide prevention awareness education annually and mandates that all school districts have at least two staff members trained as suicide prevention “gatekeepers” to help with education and response. The law also recommended, but did not require, that schools develop and implement protocols guiding prevention and management of suicidal behavior in their districts.

At the time the law was passed, Maine joined 11 other states in requiring suicide prevention training for staff.

Today, states vary in their laws and guidelines relating to parental notification, and most do not have formal standards, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Sixteen states, including Maine, have some requirement for suicide prevention policies or training.

Oklahoma and Utah specifically require schools to notify parents if their child threatens to commit suicide or is deemed to be at risk for attempting suicide. Virginia requires schools to notify parents “as soon as practicable,” but also outlines circumstances when a parent should not be notified, such as when a student indicates neglect or abuse.

Katie Hawes, superintendent of Kennebunk-based RSU 21, said the district already has protocols in place around suicide training for all staff and is in the process of launching new initiatives across the school system related to suicide prevention. The district also is launching two initiatives through the Sandy Hook Promise that teach students about inclusivity and how to “see something, say something,” and is installing an anonymous digital reporting system that allows students to report concerns about fellow students.

All district staff members – from custodians and bus drivers to teachers and administrators – attend a suicide identification and training program every five years. Staff members at the middle and high school have additional annual training.

POLICIES ON PARENTAL NOTIFICATION

Also, a team of guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists and other staff meets weekly in each school to discuss students and families at risk, Hawes said. When concerns arise that a student may harm themselves or someone else, those teams assess the situation and reach out for crisis intervention as needed.

Hawes said parents are notified of the situation when school staff believes the threat is serious enough to involve crisis workers.

“When it gets tricky is when the student is 18,” she said. “At that point, the student needs to give us permission to communicate some of these things to the family.”

South Portland Superintendent Ken Kunin said that in most situations, the school department will notify parents if a student has made suicidal statements, even if the student is 18. That decision to notify the parents of an 18-year-old is often made because the district “errs on the side of what we feel is safe for that particular student.”

“With teenagers it’s a really interesting balance. We want kids to be able to talk to the counselors and share things they’re working through,” Kunin said. “Once it crosses a line where there is clear and imminent danger to themselves or others, we notify the parents.”

While South Portland schools do train all staff members on suicide prevention, Kunin said the mental health system in Maine needs to be stronger. He said there are not adequate mental health services for teens, and too many students lack health insurance.

“The recent tragic incident in Scarborough is sadly not the only death by suicide we’ve faced in Maine schools this year,” Kunin said. “Schools throughout Maine will continue to do their best to protect students and really need the assistance of a strong child and adolescent mental health system to really make progress.”

ADDED AWARENESS IN WESTBROOK

Sanford Prince, superintendent of RSU 14 in Windham and Raymond, said his goal is for all employees to receive “gatekeeper” training. Prince said the schools do not have a written policy on suicide prevention, but will call the crisis hotline if a student is at risk. He is working to formalize that practice.

“Our practice has been around for a while,” Prince said. “The more we get into this, the more we’ve been really thinking we should have protocols in place.”

Westbrook Superintendent Peter Lancia said the district has protocols for suicide prevention, but is still working to put them in writing. In addition to staff training, Lancia said the high school started bystander training this year, teaching students how to report concerns about their peers. Parents are typically notified if a student is at risk for suicide, even if he or she is 18.

“We wrap a support team around the student right away,” Lancia said.

Lancia said discussions about suicide prevention have taken on new weight this year. A 17-year-old senior at Westbrook High School took his life in the fall, and Sam Mercer was also enrolled in the culinary arts program at Westbrook Regional Vocational Center.

“It heightens our awareness and brings it to a very real place,” Lancia said. “It’s not hypothetical.”

Graham said that seeing districts firm up their protocols is validating, and he feels proud that Anie is making a difference in Maine. But the day when what he calls “Anie’s Law” passed unanimously in the Maine Legislature, the feeling was bittersweet.

“We just sat down on the couch and kind of stared at each other for the night,” Graham said. “We couldn’t celebrate. We know this is good for the community. But it doesn’t bring Anie back, so there’s a lot of real sadness.”

Megan Doyle can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: megan_e_doyle

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: grahamgillian