Parents tell powerful stories as Utah lawmakers consider teen bullying, suicide bills
Legislature • Two other measures advance after day of emotional testimony at the Capitol.
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They wished their son could have been there to testify himself.

Instead, all Buddy Peterson's parents had, as they testified before lawmakers Thursday, was a framed photograph of their son, smiling against a blue background. The Copperton boy, 13, killed himself last month.

"After my son's suicide, in speaking with several of his friends from school, they all told me that they told the teachers he was being terrorized by a group of five to six boys on a daily basis," said Buddy's mother, Karen Peterson. "I believe that if we had been notified and knew what was going on in that school, we could have saved my son and maybe we wouldn't have a picture of him here."

Responding to complaints from grieving parents, lawmakers have been debating several bills this week aimed at stemming teen suicide. One of those bills, HB298, passed the Senate on second reading Thursday, meaning it must pass the Senate one more time before heading to the governor for his signature.

HB298 would encourage school districts to hold seminars for parents on issues such as suicide awareness, substance abuse, bullying, mental health and Internet safety.

The other two bills, HB134 and SB184, would require schools to notify parents of bullying or suicide threats in the future.

Despite emotional testimony from the Petersons and others Thursday, lawmakers voted 7-6 to hold onto one of those bills, HB134. Many committee members agreed with the bill's premise but wanted to tweak it more before allowing it to move forward.

Bill sponsor Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, said after the hearing Thursday he was confident that with more work he'd be able to bring the measure back this session. Plus, a nearly identical bill, sponsored by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, has already passed through a Senate committee and is on its way to the Senate floor.

Robles and Froerer said they plan to work together to pass the concept. In Utah, two youths are treated for suicide attempts each day, according to a 2011 report by the Utah Department of Health.

"Really, at the end of the day, this is not just a school problem, it's not just a parent problem, this is an issue, a problem we all must face, and we need to deal with this sooner or later," Froerer said. "If we look to our schools to protect and look after our kids six to eight hours a day, I don't think it's a burden to ask them to be aware of issues that come up when the parents aren't there."

Robles has said she's been working on her bill with the family of David Phan. David, 14, shot himself on a pedestrian bridge leading to the campus of his school, Bennion Junior High, on Nov. 29.

Robles' bill passed unanimously out of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday. On Thursday, however, House Education Committee members expressed varying opinions about the proposal.

"As a policymaker, I'm not going to have the precious blood of our children on my hands when there's something we can do about it," said Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, in support of the bill. "This is something we can do about it."

Others, however, had some reservations. Rep. Jim Nielsen, R-Bountiful, said that while he cares about the issue of teen suicide, he doesn't believe it's the Legislature's constitutional role to tell schools how to handle the issue.

"I believe we have historically, as a body, overreached our role," Nielsen said, "and I will consistently speak out against doing so."

Still others said they supported the bill but wanted to see some changes made before it moved forward. Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, worried the measure might have the unintended consequence of discouraging kids from reporting bullying or suicidal thoughts to educators, fearing the information getting back to their parents.

He also said he was concerned about a requirement of the bill that schools get parents to sign statements confirming that school officials notified them about bullying or suicidal threats. McCay and others worried that might be a difficult task for schools to perform, depending on the parents' time commitments and attitudes toward the school. He also wondered if the issue would be better dealt with locally.

McCay said he would prefer to work on some of those concerns in committee before pushing the bill forward, and a majority of those lawmakers present agreed. Froerer said after the hearing, however, that he plans to talk more with the committee in hopes of continuing to move the bill forward.

Laura Warburton, a parent who initially brought the idea to Froerer, said she's also confident the bill will ultimately advance. Warburton's children testified at the hearing on Thursday about the need for the bill.

"Every day people get bullied," said Chay Warburton, 18. "The truth is we're not going to be able to stop bullying with this bill, but we can sure try to save those who are."

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker David Phan case inspired Robles to write senate bill

The family of David Phan, the teen who committed suicide at Bennion Junior High in front of peers, could not be at the Capitol on Thursday, but Sen. Luz Robles said they were the inspiration for SB184.

The bill would require Utah schools notify parents of their child's involved in a suicide or bullying incident.

Robles, D-Salt Lake City, along with Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Ogden, held a press conference to discuss their similar bills winding through both houses of the Legislature.

"I heard the story of this family and no family should go through it," Robles said.

The family supports the parent-notification bill, Robles said, but they could not speak publicly because of ongoing legal talks between the family and the Granite School District.

In December, Phan's parents told The Salt Lake Tribune that district officials had mishandled the situation from the beginning, starting with statements made by district spokesman Ben Horsley, who described the teen as having "significant personal challenges on multiple fronts."

Nhuan Phan, the teen's father, and Phuong Tran, his mother, said in December they had not been notified of events at the school involving their youngest son, who was gay and from a minority culture, and the victim of bullying.

Laura Warburton of Huntsville, the mother of two sons that were bullied, said on Thursday: "It's no better time to say, 'Enough is enough.' "

The mother's children, Chay, 18, Chase, 17, and Hannah, 15, said there was systematic bullying while they attended Snowcrest Junior High in Eden.

Chay Warburton was visibly upset in describing what he said was daily bullying by other students, but admitted "there's always going to be bullying."

But he said there's a point when it becomes traumatic.

"When it gets to suicide or killing others," Chay said inside the Capitol. "I didn't want to tell my parents. [The parent-notification bill] would not stop bullying but it could help ... by making teachers and administrators more responsible."

Robles sponsored bill SB184, which passed the Senate Education Committee and is waiting a vote by the whole 29-member Senate. But in the house, lawmakers voted 7-6 Thursday to hold onto HB134. Many committee members agreed with the bill's premise but wanted to tweak it more before allowing it to move forward to the full 75-member House.

"It's a state issue that students be safe," Robles said. "Parents want to know."

Ray Parker