Utah death puts bullying, suicide in spotlight for lawmakers
Just months after a Bennion Junior High student killed himself in front of his peers, lawmakers are taking on two increasingly prominent issues in Utah: bullying and teen suicide.
The Senate Education Committee on Tuesday unanimously approved SB184, a bill that would require schools to notify parents if their children threaten to commit suicide or are involved in bullying or hazing. In such situations, the bill would require schools to get parents to sign statements acknowledging the notifications, to ensure that parents and schools fully connect, said bill sponsor Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City.
"This is an epidemic that is impacting many of our children in the state of Utah," Robles said. She said parents shouldn't find out about bullying only after a child has taken his or her life because of it.
"This is something that is real and will allow parents to be part of the solution and not be after the fact, fixing something that is unfixable," she said.
Robles said after the hearing that she has been working with the family of David Phan on the bill. David, 14, shot himself on a pedestrian bridge leading to the campus of his school, Bennion Junior High, on Nov. 29.
"Our family is pleased that the people of Utah have taken the issue of bullying seriously and have moved our Legislature to bring anti-bullying legislation to the floors of both the House and Senate," David's family said Tuesday night in a statement released by community activist Steven Ha, representing the family.
David's family has said in past interviews that the teen shot himself after being suspended from the Taylorsville school that day, possibly for bringing a condom to school. They also said the day before he died, during the school's holiday fundraiser, David got a singing telegram from a boy, provoking laughter among his classmates an incident his cousin said left him feeling mortified.
David had come out as gay to his family in the year leading up to his death. His father has said he hugged David upon learning he was gay and told him he loved him.
The day after David's suicide, Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley said in a statement that counselors had been in close contact with David because of "issues in his personal life." David's parents, however, have said they knew nothing of such contact and wondered why they weren't told if that was the case.
Horsley declined Tuesday evening to speak about the Phans' specific situation out of respect for the family, who he said has asked the district not to make further public comments.
But Horsley did say that the district supports Robles' bill and has worked with her on it. He said the district also would support relaxing state law to allow schools to make formal recommendations to students' families about outside medical services, particularly when it comes to mental health. He said the district is not allowed now to make such recommendations.
Committee members on Tuesday showed overwhelming support for the bill, passing it with hardly any debate. Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, was the lone committee member to comment, saying only that the bill "is absolutely critical."
In fact, Robles' bill is just one of several this year that aims to address issues such as bullying and teen suicide. In Utah, two youths are treated for suicide attempts each day, according to a 2011 report by the Utah Department of Health.
Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, is running a bill, HB134, that would essentially do the same thing as Robles'. Robles said the two plan to work together, calling the issue a "bipartisan" one.
"We've really had a public outcry that it's time schools start notifying parents," Froerer said Tuesday night. "We entrust our children to these schools six to eight hours a day. A parent needs to be notified when these issues come up, and schools need to take a proactive approach to make that happen."
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, is running a bill, HB298, that would encourage school districts across the state to hold parent seminars on suicide awareness, substance abuse, bullying, mental health and Internet safety.
Eliason has said he decided to sponsor the bill after the deaths of several students in recent years at a school in his area.
That bill has already passed through the House and a hearing in the Senate, meaning it must pass two more votes in the Senate before it may advance to the governor for his signature. Robles' bill must still pass through two votes on the Senate floor and then pass through the House before it can reach the governor.