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Officials say self-harm among Utah students a growing problem

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Posted at 10:18 PM, May 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-08 00:20:41-04

SALT LAKE CITY -- Utah kids as young as 9 are cutting themselves, and in some cases it's happening in school.

A Glendale Middle School student opens up to FOX 13 News about what he witnessed in class, and why his mother wants change.

It stems from an incident in February when the kid saw another student cutting his arm with a razor. His mother is upset with how the school handled the situation. FOX 13 News decided to go a step further and investigate how big of problem this is in schools like Glendale and what's being done about it.

"We're sitting in class and doing math, and I see a kid pull out a razor blade and he starts like he was going to put it on his hand and then he sliced it, and I just walked away because I didn't want to see all the blood," said the 6th grade Glendale Middle School student who doesn't want anyone to know who he is, scared that if his classmates find out he'll be made fun of.

Still, the 11-year-old found the courage to tell his mother about what he witnessed in late February.

"They didn't care; it was just another day at Glendale," said the Mother in an interview with FOX 13 News’ Nineveh Dinha.

The mother wanted her identity concealed, but she also wanted the school and the public to know she is angry at a word the assistant principal used.

"She proceeds to just tell me that she hates to use this word, she said, ‘oh, it's trendy.’"

The mother said it wasn't until she contacted Michael Clara, a board member with the Salt Lake City School District, that the principal finally talked to her son, four days later.

In an email obtained by FOX 13 News through a GRAMMA request, the assistant principal writes to Clara, "I'm so sorry if I sounded too casual with her. Please know we do not take this issue lightly."

"I think the way that it came across for the mom certainly didn't work," said Chris Gesteland, the principal at Glendale Middle School. He said the student who was seen cutting himself in class was taken care of the day it happened. Only problem is, no one bothered to tell the parent whose son reported it.

"He was not the only student that reported it, so that student was taken care of the moment we got a report about the cutting,” Gesteland said. “That's one of the conversations that we've now had as an administration, both here at school and also at the district level, what is our obligation to report to parents?”

The concerned parent and Mom of the son who witnessed his classmate cutting says no one has told her anything.

"Nothing I know of,” she said. “The only thing I do know of is he talked to my son."

FOX 13 News wanted to know, since the assistant principal said cutting was "trendy" how prevalent is it in Utah schools? We looked at Glendale Middle. Documents reveal more than a dozen incidents from November 2013 through February 2014.

In an email from a Mountain View Elementary School counselor to an unknown recipient there was a conversation about a female student cutter.

It said, "Part of her not taking her sweater off is that she has cuts on her arms."

"It's definitely a problem. We are seeing it more and more," said Bonnie Peters, who is a licensed clinical social worker for The Family Support Center, which serves people who need financial assistance for a number of issues, including mental health. "No parent is immune. I don't care what socioeconomic status they're in. It is across the board."

Peters said while parents should be talking to their kids about what cutting is, it's a topic too taboo for some families and there should be a safe place for them to open up, like in school.

"I feel that mental health issues definitely has a place in that curriculum, somehow, someway,” Peters said.

Glendale Middle School's principal knows some of his students are cutters and said those kids are getting the help they need, through counselors. Sometimes however, these pre-teens slip through the cracks, and it's up to parents to know the warning signs.

"As they see the blood that's the release," said Peters of cutters. "It mostly affects adolescent females, although males can do it also."

Sometimes the kids are as young as 9 years old.

"Cutting themselves lets them feel something,” Peters said. “Kids, people generally cut themselves because of the pressures they are feeling and many times they are numb. They have so much going on inside of them they have just numbed out. There's different things you can do besides cutting, you can burn yourself, you can do any number of things, use pencils. It's horrific the things you can do to hurt yourself.”

Social Workers said the cutting is often times hidden.

"Parents should be looking for if kids are wearing long sleeves." Another red flag, according to Peters, is being withdrawn.

"This has not been an open topic of conversation,” Gesteland said. “It never was in school for me. It never even was as recent as last year.”

The State Legislature recently passed a law, requiring schools to include suicide prevention as part of the curriculum.

"What the suicide prevention conversations have done for us has allowed us to really open the door to those subjects that are uncomfortable for people to talk about," said Gesteland, who knows cutting is an issues some of his students face. That's why they've partnered with Valley Behavioral Health.

"Valley partners in all five Salt Lake County school districts," said Susan Pizitz, who is the Program Manager for school based mental health services. "Kids do compare their cuts with one another. My therapists report, that work in schools, that it becomes a point of commonality in terms of how they share that they've got a lot of stress in their lives and it's a way they can identify with one another."

"I don't think there's ever enough awareness," said Misty Suarez, the Director of Student Services at the Salt Lake City School District.

She said they are making progress, hosting seminars for parents about difficult subjects like cutting.

"It is part of the topics that we talk about,” she said. “The key is educating both students and parents because a lot of times people don't know what to do when you see a student cutting. When you have a child of your own cutting, what do you do?"

For the Glendale Middle School student who witnessed another kid cutting, telling someone was the right thing to do.

"I wanted to go to the principal, but I wanted to go to my mom first, because I trust her more than anybody," he said.

Still, his mother said schools aren't doing enough. She thinks parents should be notified about problems like self-harm.

"They need to take every case seriously and none of the kids at school have had any kind of assembly talking about it, nothing and there's no resources for them really,” she said. “They don't know, they can talk to somebody at school."

"Cutting yourself is not necessarily suicidal behavior. The kids that do this don't generally want to kill themselves. They are doing it for release," says Peters, who believes the conversation starts at home but that schools have some responsibility too.

Peters believes in most cases cutters can make a full recovery, they just need someone to turn to.

"It can be taken care of, but it takes a little while and you've got to get to the root cause, the core of what's going on inside, why they have such intense emotions, why they're suffering their emotions and they can't feel anything," Peters said. "Got to get to that cause."

Social Workers said getting into a mental health professional can be the key to the cure. She also said if a child talks to their mom or dad about cutting, the parent really needs to be calm and come from a place of love and understanding.