Education • Lawmaker says Utah schools need to offer families life-saving seminars.
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With tears in his eyes, the stricken father approached Rep. Steve Eliason with a request.
"Please help me do something about this," the father asked several years ago, Eliason said, "so families don't have to experience this same tragedy that we're dealing with." The man's middle-school-aged child had committed suicide.
Eliason, R-Sandy, is working to fulfill that request this session with a bill, HB298, aimed at implementing parent seminars in school districts across the state on suicide awareness, substance abuse, bullying, mental health and Internet safety, including pornography addiction. The House Education Committee voted 9-3 Tuesday to advance the measure to the House floor.
It's been years since that father first approached Eliason, but youth suicide has remained an issue in Utah, with a number of kids and teens taking their own lives, including the recent high-profile case of 14-year-old David Phan. The teen committed suicide at Bennion Junior High in front of other students late last year.
"It's the second leading killer of our children," Eliason said of suicide. "If those kinds of numbers happened in a school shooting at one time the overwhelming public response would be deafening, but when it happens a few at a time it goes unnoticed sometimes."
The bill would require the state school board to develop a curriculum on the issues, and it would then be up to local school districts whether to offer the seminars to parents. If school districts opted out of giving the seminars they would have to notify the state school board and give reasons for not providing them.
Eliason ran a similar bill last year that initially passed through the House and the Senate but failed after the two bodies couldn't reach agreement on last minute changes to the measure that would have required the seminars to include information on human sexuality. This year's bill does not include human sexuality (though a separate bill, SB39, seeks to offer training to parents on how to tackle sex education).
Eliason's bill Tuesday elicited support, opposition and macabre memories that led some committee members to feel strongly about the proposal.
Rep. Carol Spackman Moss, D-Holladay, recalled that the worst day of her teaching career was when one of her Advanced Placement (AP) students killed himself on the day of the AP exam.
"These are our kids and our students and we should provide the opportunity for parents to get this kind of information," Moss said.
Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, also a retired teacher, told of an eighth-grade student in one of her classes who killed himself over a summer break. She said the memory still torments her.
"I think this dialogue needs to be out there," Poulson said. "We need to do everything we can to prevent these things from happening."
In Utah, two youths are treated for suicide attempts each day, according to a 2011 report by the Utah Department of Health.
Other committee members, however, said that though they're sympathetic to the issue, the bill seems to put too much of a burden on schools. Rep. Jim Nielsen, R-Bountiful, said he's concerned about the number of things lawmakers ask schools to do, when really they should be focusing on teaching academics.
"We always see a tragedy and feel a desire to respond," Nielsen said. "The question I have is, can government fix these things? Can schools do it?"
State Superintendent Martell Menlove said he wants to be part of the solution acknowledging that "this is a tragedy too many of us have been too close to in our educational careers."
He noted that many school districts are already reaching out to parents about suicide prevention and other topics. He said he just hopes lawmakers understand that schools are already stretched and can't alone solve such weighty problems.
He said the state school board has not yet taken a position on the bill. Canyons District Superintendent David Doty spoke in support of the proposal Tuesday, saying Canyons is already doing much of what the bill suggests. Pamela Atkinson, chair of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, also voiced support.
Learn more about suicide prevention
To find out about suicide prevention, visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number 1-800-273-TALK.
To learn about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Utah Chapter, visit http://afsputahchapter.com.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric disorder.