Thursday, July 22, 1999

Schools getting
suicide prevention
guidelines, training

A lawsuit stemming from a
Big Isle youth's suicide prompts
the state action

By Crystal Kua


If 13-year-old Kapono Oyama were alive today, he probably would have received the kind of mental health services he didn't have in May 1996, services that may have prevented him from taking his own life.

But Oyama's legacy will continue and reach children in each of Hawaii's public schools beginning this school year with new suicide prevention guidelines and training.

"I think we all feel that if Kapono's death can result in the saving of even just the life of one other child and the kind of grief that this family suffered, that it will be a successful resolution and that Kapono's death can be remembered by virtue of what we can do to enrich and to support the lives of other children," said Eric Seitz, who represents Oyama's family.

"I respect the Oyama family's determination that the very best way to honor the name and memory of Kapono Oyama is to look ahead and to teach the system ... how to be better prepared to deal with this sort of problem in the future," state Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said.

LeMahieu and Seitz appeared at a news conference together to announce a settlement in a lawsuit filed by the Oyama family, alleging that Oyama's death might have been prevented if he had received educational and mental health services required under federal law.

The state agreed to pay the Oyama family $10,000, and the Department of Education wrote a letter to the family expressing condolences and detailing plans to help prevent youth suicide.

LeMahieu said the state and each school would be required to develop a suicide crisis and prevention plan.

These new guidelines will augment policies already in place such as the department's Emergency Preparedness Handbook and the Comprehensive Student Support System.

Oyama was about to finish the eighth grade at Naalehu School on the Big Island when he committed suicide in May 1996.

Before his death Oyama was a special-education student but not certified as such. "He was having a difficult time in his academics, and he had significant behavioral problems that resulted in almost constant disciplinary actions taken by the school," Seitz said. "There were really no programs in school to provide mental health services for kids at that time."

School officials at the time were not properly trained to recognize the signs, Seitz said. "I think that it was very difficult for the school to put those symptoms and experience in a comprehensive way and to recognize what it might lead to."

But things have changed since then, largely due in part to the Felix consent decree, a federal legal action designed to improve educational and mental health services to special-needs students, said Seitz, who is also one of the lawyers in the Felix case.

"To a large extent now, we have mental health services that are much more readily available to schools," he added.


A section of new Department of Education guidelines spells out to administrators and staff how to help a suicidal teen:

Bullet Offer help and listen; trust your instincts.

Bullet Recognize the warning signs.

Bullet Report suspicions to an administrator or counselor.

E-mail to City Desk

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