Politics and bullying
Provo School District Associate Superintendent Greg Hudnall was haunted by the reports of student suicides in his district, so he decided to do something about it.
"We were losing one to two students a year to suicide between 1997 and 2004," he told me in a recent interview. That was when he launched the Hope Project in his district, which has become a comprehensive effort involving school teachers, administrators, parents, several civic and health organizations in Utah County and the city of Provo.
Since that project was launched, "we haven't had one suicide since 2005 (in the district)," he told me.
The Hope Project began by surveying sixth-, eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders throughout the district and asking them to name three or four students they would trust with their personal problems.
In each of the grade levels, Hudnall said, "the same 30 or 40 kids were listed by most of the students."
So those students were chosen to be student peers available to befriend and counsel at-risk students who reached out. It expanded, with programs to help teachers and parents identify suicidal tendencies in their students and get them counseling.
In January, thanks to several organizations and support from Provo Mayor John Curtis, the district plans to air an anti-bullying video and is promoting the idea that the entire Provo community view it on the same day, through showings at public venues or through community television.
That should lead to group discussions, more awareness and more reporting and understanding of bullying in school and its potential consequences.
Granite School District, which lost a student at Bennion Junior High School last month when he shot himself in front of other students on a sky bridge in Taylorsville, also has employed an innovative program aimed at preventing bullying, which is one of the behaviors blamed for the troubling amount of suicides. Utah, according to the Utah Department of Health, has the 17th highest number of suicides among youths between 10 and 17 in the nation.
But while classmates said the student who shot himself in Taylorsville had been horribly bullied at school, no teachers or administrators had been notified of that problem.
Efforts to expand anti-bullying and suicide programs have run into resistance because of politics.
When Rep. Carol Spackman Moss sponsored anti-bullying legislation a few years ago, she wanted to include at-risk groups of students. But she was told that would never pass the Legislature because conservative groups like the Eagle Forum feared the protected groups would include sexual orientation. She eventually got a bill passed that simply required districts to adopt anti-bullying policies.
Last legislative session, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, sponsored a teen-suicide prevention bill that borrowed from some of the ideas of Provo's Hope Project.
His bill would require school districts to offer an annual seminar to help parents recognize suicidal signs in their children. The seminar would cover such topics as drug abuse, bullying, online harassment, etc.
At first, it had overwhelming support and passed the House easily. But the Senate added an amendment that also would require a sex education component in the seminars for parents.
That was when the Legislature was passing the Eagle Forum-inspired bill that would effectively eliminate sex ed in the schools. Some senators felt they could fill the gap by offering the education to parents.
That amendment was met with derision in the House and was eventually taken out of the bill.
So when it came up for final passage, Senate President Michael Waddoups, who had originally supported the bill, voted against it and made some comments that led two more senators to change their votes. It was defeated because the Senate decided to teach the upstart House a lesson about respect.
The tragic irony: The Bennion Junior High School student who shot himself lived in Waddoups' Senate district.