MacArthur students ‘walk the talk’ against suicide

Students at MacArthur Middle School walk 1.5 miles to raise awareness for Suicide Prevention Month and bullying. (Photo by Maddie Ecker)

Last week, cars driving down Rockenbach Road may have witnessed all 1,150 MacArthur Middle School students pouring out of the building.

It was MacArthur’s first-ever Suicide Awareness Walk. The 1.5-mile route started at MacArthur, hit Manor View Elementary and looped back around. Both students and faculty participated in the walk to raise awareness for Suicide Prevention Month.

The walk was suggested by retired Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Hank Branch, the school’s guidance counselor for the past 15 years. Branch, who works with sixth-grade students, came up with the idea during the summer while preparing for the school year.

“I wanted to bring awareness about suicide prevention and bullying to our students and faculty,” he said. “Today, when students go home, they can tell their parents they participated in this walk to show people how important this topic is.

“I wanted to ‘walk the talk’ and turn the conversation [about suicide prevention and bullying] into action.”

Conversation to Action

Branch partnered with Barbara Sanchez, a language arts teacher, and Brittany Marshall, a social worker at the Navy Fleet and Family Support Center, to help organize the event.

He also contacted Linda Diaz and Kelley Flanders, advocates with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) who organize suicide awareness walks in the area.

Diaz, who lost her 15-year-old daughter to suicide, now works with children to help them identify the five signs of depression.

“We like to encourage kids to recognize the difference between being sad and being depressed,” Diaz said. “The best thing you can do for someone is talk to them and help remove the stigma associated with depression.”

The AFSP’s current campaign is “Be the Voice,” which encourages people to speak out, reach out and be an advocate for those who need help.

“Our message today is, ‘If a friend isn’t texting you back, talk to an adult,’ ” Flanders said.

Preventing Bullying

In addition to the walk, students viewed the TV special “Words Can Kill,” which was followed by a classroom conversation about suicide prevention and bullying.

The faculty at MacArthur Middle School participated in a suicide and bullying prevention training at the beginning of the school year. The training focused on how to report bullying and take statements from students, and the different triggers to look for in students who are being bullied or seem withdrawn.

As a guidance counselor, Branch’s day stops once a child says he is going to harm himself.

“The kid will stay with me so that I can take a statement,” Branch said. “Then based on what they tell me, I’ll ask them to identify whether they think it was an incident, conflict or bullying.”

A poster with the definitions for incidents, conflicts and bullying hangs in Branch’s office. Letting students pick what they think happened helps Branch understand their situation.

The administration will then launch an investigation to determine the seriousness of the issue. So far, MacArthur has had five possible cases this school year but none have proven substantive.

Branch is hopeful that last week’s walk will yield positive results.

The walk was planned to take “physical steps to do something rather than just talking about [suicide prevention and bullying],” he said. “The community knows we care about them. I think lots of positive things can come out of this kind of event.

“If we save one life because of this walk, that would be awesome.”

Sheri Wingate, a guidance counselor for eighth-graders at MacArthur, helped keep students off the road during the walk.

“I’m hoping that we make [this walk] annual,” Wingate said during the event. “This was great.”

Branch is seeking additional support from post organizations.

“We’re looking for post sponsors and business to help donate T-shirts and water bottles,” he said. “We want to get the community involved [in future walks].”

Events such as this also help students get to know and support each other in times of need.

For new student Sania Ross, a sixth-grader with cerebral palsy, the walk was a fun way to connect with her classmates.

“[This] helped me get used to doing things with the school,” the 12-year-old said.

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