Portage revises suicide prevention policy

PORTAGE — The Portage Area School District’s suicide prevention policy has been revised to provide students with more emotional support from district faculty.

Under the new protocol approved by the school board on Wednesday, the district will attempt to “promote a healthy school climate where students feel connected to, and can identify, trusted adults in the building.”

To comply with Act 71, the district requires staff from kindergarten through 12th-grade to complete a four-hour online training as required by Intermediate Unit 8.

By doing this, Superintendent Eric Zelanko said, district faculty will attempt to create stronger relationships with students and reach out to those who need help.

“Every student should have a favorite teacher that they can trust and be comfortable with,” Zelanko said. “For students who don’t have anyone to confide in, we want our teachers to reach out to them and offer support.”

This suicide prevention training, Zelanko said, also educates teachers on the warning signs of possible suicide risk.

“We have a phenomenal staff that watches for signs of mental health,” Zelanko said. “This program educates our faculty on how to identify a potential crisis and how to act upon it.”

The district also has a Student Assistance Program, which provides support for students who “demonstrate risk factors that appear to be adversely impacting the student.”

After surveying over 300 high school students, results showed that many students in the district felt they did not feel accepted by their peers.

With the emergence of social media, where children can bully and harass others without having to physically face that person, Zelanko said students “have it more difficult than ever.”

Because of the lingering effects of social media, reaching out to students has become even more of a priority for the district.

“When a student goes home, the bullying doesn’t stop,” Zelanko said. “Students try so hard to fit in, but social media makes it even more difficult. … It’s imperative that our faculty reaches out to our students.”

If a student does feel alone or in need of help, Zelanko encourages those students to reach out for support.

“We are about more than just education,” Zelanko said. “We are teachers, but we are also doctors, nurses and counselors. It’s our goal to be there for our students when they need us the most.”

The school board also received updates regarding the replacement of the district’s track, with the project expected to cost over $200,000.

In November, Zelanko urged board members to consider replacing the track, which has seen serious wear and tear.

“It’s not in good condition,” Zelanko said, “We need to do something about it sooner rather than later.”

After being contacted by local engineers and architects, Zelanko found that several other schools in the area have also considered repairing or replacing their tracks.

Central Cambria School Board President Dennis Simmers said replacing its track was “imminent.”

The Altoona Area School District and others also have expressed interest in a track replacement, Zelanko said.

To create a more competitive package for bids on the project, Zelanko suggested combining the district’s project with other school districts.

Board members seemed to agree with Zelanko.

“It sounds like the best route to take,” Board President Erik Thrower said.

Zelanko will begin the process of speaking with other school districts to create a group bid for numerous track replacements in the area.

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