The Free Press, Mankato, MN

April 1, 2013

Suicide threats, marijuana use up in Mankato schools

By Amanda Dyslin
Free Press Staff Writer

MANKATO — Suicide threats and marijuana usage are up in Mankato Area Public Schools this year, according to a report given to the School Board Monday night by school resource officers.

Todd Miller, director of Mankato Public Safety, and officers Tom Rother, assigned to West, and Keith Mortensen, assigned to East, presented breakdowns of incident reports at each school, as well as opinions on trends.

Since September, East Junior/High had 11 reported suicide threats, and West had five. (Rother said East’s higher numbers are partly due to the school’s larger student body of seventh- through 12th-graders, compared to West’s ninth- through 12th-grade population.)

Most of the suicide threats were made by female students, and most were reported by friends.

“We had a problem with mental health this year,” said Mortensen, who was added as the district’s second school resource officer this year. “We don’t know exactly why that is.”

Miller expressed concern over the increase, and despite not having local data confirming causes, he said cyber-bullying and constant usage of social media is having an effect on “impressionable kids.”

“That’s scary to me,” he said.

Miller said Mankato Public Safety is planning to form partnerships in the school district and the mental health community and will be announcing community-wide training to “be better prepared to address youth having these thoughts and mental health crises.”

Rother didn’t have suicide-threat figures from previous years, but he said the numbers go up and down from year to year.

Mortensen and Rother said the schools do not have problems with identifying students who need help. Both officers have heard from adults throughout the building — everyone from janitors to school counselors — when a student is in need of assistance.

Marijuana usage is also on the rise, the officers said. East had just four narcotics reports, and West had three. (Marijuana is reported in that category, which also includes prescription drugs.) But both said most students using the drug are not being caught.

Both said they learn a lot about student usage by being immersed in the schools, overhearing conversations and having conversations with students.

“They are heavily using marijuana,” Mortensen said.

“We’ve done a very good job at making it difficult for kids to get cigarettes,” Miller added. “It’s much easier, unfortunately, for them to get marijuana.”

Mortensen said students have come up to him and asked about the marijuana laws in Colorado and Washington and asked why Minnesota’s laws are different. Miller said students hear about those states in the news and then think, “What’s the big deal if I have it here?”

Mortensen said he’s constantly coaching and engaging the kids he suspects of using, informing them of the risks and side effects of marijuana. Miller said the most powerful influence over this kind of behavior comes from peers who work to educate younger classmates about drug use.

“Younger kids want to listen and to emulate them,” he said.

The majority of the calls the officers respond to in the schools are “assists,” which are usually non-criminal and can include mediating a conversation between two kids in an argument, they said.

Most of the theft incidents at both schools involved unlocked items in the locker rooms and suggested having a locker room attendant to help curb the crime. There were 15 thefts reported at East and eight at West since September.

East also had seven incidents of harassment and five assaults.

“Other than that, the students at East are very smart, very good kids,” Mortensen said.