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Suicide prevention programs may be coming to Utah schools

Published February 27, 2013 6:02 pm

Education • HB154 would fund state coordinators and require prevention sessions for junior high and high school students.
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Following months of increased attention on teen suicide in Utah, a committee on Wednesday advanced a fourth bill addressing the issue.

HB154 would require school districts and charter schools to implement youth suicide prevention programs for junior high and high school students. It would also fund a suicide prevention coordinator at the State Office of Education and a state suicide prevention coordinator at the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health. The bill would cost $250,000 a year.

"Unfortunately, this topic is worse than sad and more than tragic," said bill sponsor Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, noting that he's aware of seven young people who have taken their lives in Utah since January. "The good news is that this is very, very preventable."

Greg Hudnall, a Provo District associate superintendent, said his district has already seen the benefits of its own suicide prevention efforts. He said 15 years ago, the Provo District averaged about one to two youth suicides a year. The district hasn't had a student commit suicide since 2005, he said.

"What's been happening for the past 15 years is there are a bunch of talented organizations out there piece-mealing, trying to provide support," Hudnall said. He said the bill would be a way to help coordinate those efforts.

Some speakers, however, objected to the proposal. Cherilyn Eagar, a conservative activist and former congressional candidate, cautioned lawmakers against spending more money on more programs. And Rep. Jim Nielsen, R-Bountiful, said schools should take suicide seriously, but he believes it's beyond the legislature's authority to force schools to take on such a program.

"This is one more task that we, without authority, are laying on our schools," Nielsen said.

Ultimately, the committee voted to send the bill to the House floor. The bill follows a number of others also seeking to address teen suicide this session, including HB134 and SB184, which would require schools to notify parents of students' bullying or suicide threats.

Another bill, also sponsored by Eliason, HB298, would urge school districts to offer parent seminars on topics such as bullying and mental health. HB298 has already passed the full Legislature and awaits the governor's signature.