Suicide may take the lives of nearly 600 Utahns, including school students, this year, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, told his fellow lawmakers Wednesday.
"That's two a day," Eliason said. "We cannot afford to not talk about these things."
Eliason enlisted the support of the Utah Education Interim Committee for changes in state law that he said would untie the hands of educators.
The Legislature last session passed House Bill 154, which created suicide-prevention programs in Utah's junior highs and high schools. It also funded 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.
But the bill did not make clear that school employees can intervene when they suspect a student is at risk of suicide.
Some schools and districts at the advice of the state Office of Education have backed off of intervention for fear of liability or of planting suicidal thoughts where none existed, Eliason said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said he supports the changes Eliason proposes.
The proposed bill, not yet numbered, would let a school employee ask a student questions if he or she appears at risk of suicide. A teacher, for instance, could ask about a student's suicidal thoughts, self-harming behavior or thoughts of harming others.
The point would be to refer the student to professional prevention services and to inform the student's parents.
"These are common-sense steps to help children who are suffering," Eliason said.
The interim committee, however, amended the bill to preclude schools from doing large-scale surveys of students about suicide. Peter Cannon, a member of the Davis School Board, had argued that such surveys would "certainly put the idea in some minds, no question about that."
Two teachers on the committee, Democratic Reps. Carol Spackman Moss of Holladay and Marie Poulson of Cottonwood Heights, shared their experiences with teen suicide.
Moss, a retired high school teacher, said what happens in a school after a suicide is important. Her district would not allow rest-in-peace messages on school marquees when one of her students took his own life, but did do so for accident victims.
"They feared the contagion," Moss said. "At the same time, it seemed he wasn't being honored for his life because of the choice he made."
Poulson said the issue is fraught with difficulty. "Too often the information [about a child] is not shared with me as a teacher because of privacy issues."
Moreover, she worries about liability. "Does this legislation protect people from liability issues when they're doing their best?"
The legislation endorsed by the committee Wednesday would require school districts and charter schools to adopt policies by September to guide how educators intervene with at-risk students.
Suicide in Utah
Suicide claimed the lives of 562 Utahns in 2012, up from 490 in 2011.
The state averaged 402 suicides per year between 2006 and 2010.
It is the second leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 17.
Source: Utah Department of Health, Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health