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Texas Town Devastated by Teen Suicides Is Now Leader in Prevention With PM-Suicide-Prevention

March 23, 1987 GMT

Texas Town Devastated by Teen Suicides Is Now Leader in Prevention With PM-Suicide-Prevention Bjt

PLANO, Texas (AP) _ The suicides of four youths in Bergenfield, N.J., this month stirred some old, real, frightening memories in this community.

Plano, a fast-growing, high-flying Dallas suburb, was devastated by six suicides from February to August 1983, including three in one week. Within nine months, the toll was eight.

But it was also Plano that became a leader in suicide prevention, continually expanding its own programs and offering counsel to other communities.

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″Bergenfield certainly dredges up old feelings,″ said Carole Steele, director of the Plano Crisis Center. ″There are some similarities and dissimilarities. There’s another tragedy taking place, and maybe with a little bit of awareness, it could have been avoided.″

In the last two years, Plano, population 100,000, has recorded two teen suicides, officials say. Simple, low-cost programs are credited with strengthening the support system and lessening the tension created by the cluster of deaths.

″We don’t have all the answers,″ said Larry Guinn, director of student services for the Plano schools. ″We’re just trying to build as big a safety net under our kids as we can.″

Guinn, who was associate principal at Plano High School when the suicides began, has sent information on Plano’s programs to 500 school districts and church groups from 47 states and two foreign countries. Already this year, he’s spoken before 40 groups. Last month, Ms. Steele spoke to a group in an Atlanta suburb concerned about suicide potential.

″I don’t think anybody will ever forget Plano. We get calls all the time,″ said Ms. Steele.

Plano school officials, mental health counselors and students launched a crisis hotline and programs to target newly transferred or depressed individuals and team them with other students. That concept was expanded to parents new to town.

Voluntary academic workshops offer low-pressure opportunities for achievement. On their own, students formed anti-drug and alcoholism groups, as well as an organization that dispatches volunteers with get-well greetings to fellow students.

This year, leadership conferences and groups are being set up. Students performed a play on drug and alcohol abuse, and more than 700 parents a month now take part in ″practical parent education.″

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″The more you research this, the more you find that suicide, drug and alcohol abuse and teen pregnancy all come out of the same bag, and you can’t just zero in on one,″ Guinn said.

Plano still worries about teen suicides, and officials are particularly worried about ″copy cat″ deaths while another community is grappling with the problem. And Plano, officials say, will never believe it’s put the problem behind.

″The basic problem is that nobody wants to believe it will happen in my town and to my kids,″ said Ms. Steele. ″If we can get away from that attitude, we can overcome a major barrier to prevention.″

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EDITOR’S NOTE - Scott McCartney is the AP Southwest regional reporter, based in Dallas.