‘Hope’ springs eternal in Hoquiam school district

The Hoquiam School District is the first in the state of Washington to have a Hope Squad, a group of educators focused on reducing youth suicide through education, training, and peer intervention.

The team works along side the district’s SMART team — School Mental Health Assessment, Research, and Training team — another group of educators that has prepared school-specific crisis plans.

“The focus is the prevention of a crisis, the handling of a crisis and dealing with the aftermath of a crisis,” said Colin Nelson, principal of Lincoln Elementary School, at the Hoquiam School Board meeting Thursday evening.

The Hope Squad focuses primarily on middle school students who may have suicidal thoughts or tendencies. The team wears shirts emblazoned with the Hoquiam Hope Squad logo and encourages students to report when they hear a fellow classmate expressing self-destructive thoughts.

The Hope Squad is a bridge between students and staff. As one counselor put it, children typically don’t tell adults when they have a peer who is expressing suicidal thoughts, but they will talk to other friends. The role of the Hope Squad is to offer a safe place for friends of suicidal students to express their concerns about fellow classmates.

One example of how the Hope Squad works happened recently at the middle school. A student was acting strangely, and two classmates were concerned. Both were heard saying, “We need the Hope Squad. We need to Hope Squad her. She needs to be Hope Squadded.”

Beginning in 2016, the district’s SMART team started training in the program. In September of 2016, the group had its initial training. The day after that, a Hoquiam School District student committed suicide. There was no plan in place to deal with the tragic situation. But soon after, there was, and in subsequent incidents there were tools for school officials to deliver prompt responses to students, parents, the community and others.

Now, if there is a crisis at the school, educators are all on the same page when delivering the message to various audiences. There are pre-written messages for various crises, so each audience will receive the same information, with no sensationalism from whomever is delivering that message. For instance, concerning the recent threatening messages written inside and outside a middle school classroom, a message was delivered swiftly to students, parents and public, strictly stating the facts.

“I want to thank the superintendent (Mike Villareal) for putting our safety first,” said Hoquiam Middle School student Thomas Goulet, commenting on Villareal’s decision to close the school that day to investigate the threat.

Each school in the district has a safe room, a place students can go to to express their feelings and emotions after a crisis. The room has a sign-in sheet, so counselors and others can identify who is in the room and might need additional guidance. For example, the safe room in Hoquiam High School is on the second floor of the library.

The Hope Squad is based in Utah and the brainchild of Dr. Gregory A. Hundall, a 20-year professional in suicide prevention. With the success Hoquiam has seen with the program, school officials are hoping to take the program countywide.