District 65 offices at the JEH Education Center.

Evanston/Skokie School District 65 says the number of students given a suicide risk assessment last month more than doubled over the same period before the coronvairus pandemic.

Anna Marie Candelario, the district’s director of special services, told the Board of Education on Monday night that 35 students were referred for suicide risk assessments in October. That compares to just 14 in October 2019.

The number of students given the next level of referral, threat assessments, doubled from four in October 2019 to eight last month.

While the total numbers are still rather small in a district with more than 6,500 students, a key question is whether stress among kingergarten-through-eighth-graders is actually increasing, or are there simply more and better measurements?

Referring to the suicide risk numbers as well as other categories where students may need counseling, Candelario noted “I would say both.”

She said that the extra emotional challenges faced by students and their families rose due to COVID-19, so the increase in referrals for a variety of emotional needs “is in part due to the pandemic.”

Another increase, perhaps due to additional parental concern, is the number of special education students, even though the overall student population in District 65 has been shrinking.

Board members were told that at the beginning of this school year there were 1,076 students with Individualized Education Plans, better known as IEPs.

In fall, 2018, only 896 students had such plans. IEPs are student-specific learning and support-services plans, for those with designated disabilities.

And that’s not all. The district is also seeing more referrals, requesting special education services in the first place. There were 197 such referrals in 2020-21, but already 115 so far in 2021-22, with the school year not even half finished.

Assistant Superintendent Romy DeCristofaro said that most of the referrals came from the primary grades as opposed to the middle schools and that most came directly from parents.

Special education professionals face a challenge, DeCristoforo explained, in working to determine if a child is indeed eligible for an IEP.

It’s a balance, she said, “making sure we’re not over-identifying,” while at the same time listening to the concerns of families.

Board members asked the special education administrators if the district has enough resources to handle the cases, particularly if the types of cases are becoming more difficult.

“I’m not going to lie,” said Candelario. “I’ve had a few teachers break down” and cry. Secondary trauma, she called it.

The district is contracting out for additional help, even for an outside counselor to work with special ed teachers and counselors here.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.