After a narrow vote, the Alliance Public School Board gave the green light for HOPE Squads to be formed at Alliance’s schools to increase suicide prevention efforts.

Shardel Nelson, who lost her daughter to suicide, presented the board with information about the HOPE Squad program and how it can help students in times of crisis.

Currently, the HOPE Squad program is currently used by several schools in Nebraska, including Bellevue East and Beatrice. Currently, Nelson noted Bayard Public Schools has committed to the program, and that they are discussing implementation of the program at Chadron High School and at Chadron State College.

Panhandle Public Health District volunteered to fund the program as a whole for Alliance Public Schools.

The program asks students to select peers they feel they can share issues with to be members of the squads. Faculty members and advisers will finalize the selection. If the students selected have parental permission, they will undergo training to learn about how best to help peers who express the need for help. The program would be implemented in each of Alliance’s public schools, including elementary.

Board Member Josh Freiberger cautioned the selection process for members of the HOPE Squad.

“Let’s be real, it could be a popularity thing,” said Freiberger. “Just because you’re the homecoming king doesn’t mean that you would be very good at this. (…) I see this as a great program as long as they do it for the right reasons and not just a pat on the back. That’s where I can see this as being a major problem: we idolize these 20 or 30 kids and put them up on this pedestal, and that’s where I can see it being more dangerous than good. Natural leaders and natural counselors will rise to the top in certain situations, and that’s where picking these kids could go backwards. You’ve got to be really careful with who gets picked because it could be a tragedy if it’s the wrong one.”

After further discussion about advisers and the program, Freiberger asked if the program is really necessary for younger students.

“Suicide is the number one leading cause of death for 10-14,” Nelson responded. “I can honestly say right now we’ve had second graders talk about suicide and say they’re going to do it, because they’ve heard it. So, there’s an educational piece to it.”

Grandview Elementary Principal Randy Butcher noted many young people have been affected by suicide.

“I know there have been situations where after a suicide, there are other thoughts from kids,” said Butcher. “You may not see it as much when kids are younger, and you may think that they always bounce back when they’re younger. When they get older and they have access to alcohol and drugs and all kinds of things that could relate back to when they were younger. There are students at a young age who are at our school who are depressed and are on medication for that. They don’t know which direction to go. Unless they get some help at a younger age, it’s going to go on. Just because they’ve been exposed to suicide and they feel that there’s something there that they don’t know how to handle, but they think that’s something that might be an answer for them, because they can’t think through it and they don’t have help.”

Board member Tim Richey said he saw the benefit of having the program to help take away the stigma behind mental health issues. He also encouraged the advisers to consider allowing volunteers to join the HOPE Squads.

“With most things, to fix things, it’s getting people to talk about it,” Richey said. “If you’re not talking about it, it gets pushed to the side, and that’s when you have the alcoholics, that’s when you have suicides, because nobody wants to talk about it. I think kids are amazing. I have some young kids, and the intelligence that those kids have, we don’t give them enough credit. Elementary school, middle school, high school, we don’t give them enough credit to be able to stand up and do this. Leadership is something that will bless them the rest of their lives. Once you start the process, it becomes a revolving door where one other person becomes a leader to that new kid that just got voted in.

“I would say don’t forget the volunteers,” said Richey. “I feel like you would have a lot of quiet kids who would be exceptional leaders that kids would talk to. I was a quiet kid in high school. I wasn’t the one who knew everybody; I wasn’t the one who was the most vocal; I wasn’t the one who was the class clown. Nobody’s going to talk to the class clown, even if his name is in the hat five times.”

Board Member Edison Red Nest shared his personal experience with suicide, noting that the HOPE Squad program has the potential to save lives.

“I’ve had many, many family members commit suicide,” Red Nest said. “You always wonder what could we have done? What did we miss? We should have been there. This could help.”

The board voted in favor of implementing the program, with Board Members Tim Kollars and Freiberger voting against the motion.

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