Coeur d’Alene trustee candidate questions a longstanding mental health program

School trustee candidate Yasmin Harris challenged a Coeur d’Alene School District mental health program put in place five years ago to help students cope with a spate of tragic suicides.

“I’m here this evening on behalf of a parent who felt that her voice was not being heard,” Harris told the school board during last week’s regular meeting.

The program is Sources of Strength at Skyway Elementary School. The parent was unable to pull her son out of the course unless she picked him up each time, which is not an option because she works full-time, Harris explained, on behalf of the parent. Furthermore, SOS includes liberal ideas around family, gender identity and spirituality, Harris told trustees.

Idaho Education News requested an explanation of the program. The district’s community relations director Stefany Bales directed EdNews to the nonprofit’s website. Use this link to find out more about SOS, a program that promotes improved mental health and suicide prevention. It’s supported by the State Department of Education.

“SOS was brought to the Coeur d’Alene School District in 2018 after the district experienced the tragedies of multiple student deaths and an administrator death from suicide. As Kootenai County has a higher-than-average rate of suicidality, the community and the district recognize the need to support our children, many of whom were impacted by these deaths and/or were struggling themselves. SOS became part of the district’s approach to helping students by providing opportunities to build resilience by focusing on their strengths and healthy connections,” Bales wrote in an email response.

About 4,200 elementary, 200 middle and 47 high school students participate in courses, programs or clubs. Trustees adopted it in 2018 for secondary schools and 2022 for elementary schools, after the SDE offered an elementary curriculum.

Prior to adopting it, the district created a committee “to investigate the possibility of adding this curriculum to the district’s elementary schools as part of its health curriculum,” according to district documents. By a 6-2 margin, the committee favored implementation. Four parents and four district staff members served on the committee. Bales provided a document that details their work. Click here to read it.

The school district maintains a website page that provides program specifics. “Parents, and others in the community with an interest, have the right to review the SOS curriculum during the adoption process and/or at the district office,” Bales wrote.  “At any level, parents may choose to opt their children out of lessons with which they are uncomfortable.” 

At the secondary level, SOS is a club format so students opt-in. When students indicate they want to join an SOS club, their parent or guardian is notified by letter for permission. At the elementary level, letters are sent prior to students beginning the curriculum “which clearly articulates the opt-out process,” Bales wrote.

At the meeting, Harris said, “There should be another adult and room available for each half-hour it is taught, for children whose parents want to protect them and teach our own views on this at home where it belongs. The fact that this teacher has brought such opposition to her is extremely frustrating and disheartening. This is another example why opting out is not the right option. It should always be opt in.”

Bales said it is a misunderstanding. “There is no district policy that directs parents to pick up their child if they opt that child out of SOS instruction. After investigating the specific situation at Skyway … it became clear that there was a misunderstanding. Of the five parents opting out, some wanted to pick up their children. Per policy, the practice at all eleven elementary schools is to work with families that opt out by providing their child with an alternative activity in an alternate and supervised location.”

Harris said, “This mom is correct. She should absolutely have every right to pull her child out of this, yet we are finding that the parents’ voice is not being heard or respected.” 

“Parents have the right to know and understand what their children learn and how they learn it. They have the right to ask questions, view curriculum, and understand their child’s educational records,” according to Bales.

The question of investigating SOS “assumes the speaker(s) at Monday’s board meeting offered factual information about the SOS program and its effects. Those who spoke on this topic offered their opinions, which they are welcome to do,” Bales wrote.

“The facts are that SOS is a foundational and widely accepted program used across the country to reduce youth suicide. There are those who argue SOS should not be used but they provide no meaningful alternative to effectively raise suicide awareness, support ALL our students, or reduce the number of young people who take their own lives every year.”

She added, “SOS does not mention or teach equity, race, ethnicity, or privilege. It contains no language about or discussion of gender, gender identity, sexuality, or sexual preference.”

SOS teaches about wellness, well-being and living healthily. It encourages strong family connections and suggests that students draw upon the faith or spirituality of their families to source their strength, according to Bales. 

Harris has a different opinion. “I feel we need to do better, especially when we keep preaching mental health, inclusion and positivity. It seems as though it’s a one-way street. The parents’ voice and choice should matter above all else, no matter what. So why are we making it so hard for them?”

Darren Svan

Darren Svan

Reporter Darren Svan has a background in both journalism and education. Prior to working for military schools at overseas installations, he was news editor at several publications in Wyoming and Colorado. You can send news tips to [email protected].

Get EdNews in your inbox

Weekly round up every Friday