Hope Squad suicide prevention program comes to Valley High School

A youth suicide prevention program, new to Valley High School, will see students trained to watch for warning signs.

The New Kensington-Arnold School District is getting a Hope Squad, a national program founded in Utah and promoted locally by a West Deer mother whose daughter died by suicide in March 2019 at age 16.

Launched in 2004 at a high school in the Provo City School District, Hope Squads are present in nearly 1,300 schools in 35 states and Canada. There are over 30,000 squad members and over 5,000 students have been referred for help.

Tam Larnerd, training facilitator for Hope Squad in Las Vegas and retired high school principal, shared a story in which a high school student told his classmates that he was going to kill himself. None of them knew what to do and told no one. The student made it.

“We know that research indicates that seven out of 10 college students before attempting suicide will do or say something that, if recognized as a warning sign, can be avoided,” Larnerd said. “That’s what the Hope Squads do.”

DuBois Area Middle School was the first school in Pennsylvania to get a Hope Squad. The school has approximately 1,000 students in grades five through eight; 30 students in grades six through eight are part of the team that started this school year, said seventh-grade counselor Christine Kline.

Kline said they’ve made about 10 dismissals so far due to fears a classmate may have had suicidal thoughts due to things they saw or heard.

“It worked really well,” Kline said. “I have a few kids who have really taken the workouts to heart and are just phenomenal at what they do. They really take it seriously and I’m proud of them.

Molly Rupprecht wants to establish a network of teams at schools in the Alle-Kiski Valley in honor of her daughter, Maura, using proceeds from an annual Deer Lakes Hockey Club game. His son, Mitchell, played with the club.

Valley High is receiving $6,000 to support their team from the second annual Maura C. Rupprecht Alumni Hockey Game held in May. The first in December 2019 raised $8,400 which funds a team in Deer Lakes.

Approximately $10,000 was raised at the third annual game in January. Two schools are interested, but who will receive it has not been determined, Rupprecht said.

Rupprecht said they were excited to launch the program at Valley High.

“They have passionate people involved. I really think it will be a good thing,” she said. “The skills and lessons everyone involved will learn will last a lifetime. They will always be able to help someone or themselves or know where to go to get help for someone who is struggling.

Ashley Pujol, a physical education and health teacher at Valley, said they knew they wanted to start a Hope Squad after Rupprecht spoke to members of the school’s student aid program.

“It’s such a good program,” Pujol said. “At this age, children don’t like to talk to adults. If something helps and they can feel comfortable talking to a peer who then comes to see an adult, I think that will be very rewarding.

Pujol said the program will be introduced to the school’s 10th and 11th graders, who will each nominate three of their classmates who they would feel comfortable talking to.

Of the nominees, Pujol said they plan to select 10 or more students who, with their parents’ permission, are willing to do so and undergo training.

“They are in no way advisers,” Pujol said. “They will be attentive listeners and it will be easy to talk to them. They will go to an adult if there is something serious.

Pujol said they expect the program to work and be introduced to the entire college by the end of the school year.

“Suicide is the single most preventable cause of death,” Larnerd said. “Hope Squads flips the script. Instead of waiting for struggling students to come to us, we go to them. Subtle signs tell a lot about what is happening.

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Brian at 724-226-4701, brittmeyer@triblive.com or via Twitter .