The tragedy of teen suicide is getting the attention of lawmakers this year and it appears several bills might succeed in addressing the growing epidemic.
But the response is coming a year later than it should have, since Rep. Steve Eliason’s bill in 2012 to direct school districts to educate parents on warning signs of suicide was killed in the Utah Senate because of petty politics.
The Sandy Republican’s bill would have required school districts to develop an educational program and conduct an annual voluntary seminar that parents could attend to help them detect signs of suicidal tendencies in a child. Part of the seminar would address the issue of bullying.
His bill passed the House overwhelmingly, but it was amended in the Senate to include sex education in the seminar for parents.
The amendment was dripping with political hubris because of resentment by Republican leaders over the criticism they received from a bill that would have basically done away with meaningful sex education in the schools.
Gov. Gary Herbert withstood threats from the Eagle Forum and other right-wing groups that harbor disdain for sex-ed programs and vetoed the bill.
The Senate decided to enhance Eliason’s suicide-prevention intent with the sex-ed component as a political statement against anyone daring to question the wisdom of its leadership.
The House, after much mocking of the amendment, took it out and sent the bill back to the Senate. But when senators initially passed the bill, then-Senate President Michael Waddoups voted no and made statements that persuaded two senators to change their votes, thus killing the bill.
Since then, there have been more teen suicides, leaving distraught parents who had no idea there was a problem wondering what could have been done.
This year, the alarm bell has gone off and a bipartisan effort is afoot to do what the Legislature should have done last year.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, and Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, held a press conference Thursday with the families of teen suicide victims to promote their bills that would require schools to notify parents of bullying or suicide threats.
Eliason has reintroduced his bill to provide suicide-prevention education for parents and it seems to be on the way to passage. A good sign for the bill is that its Senate sponsor last year was Sen. Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, who has replaced Waddoups as the Senate president.
Another Eliason bill would establish a State Office of Education suicide-prevention coordinator to oversee school district and charter school youth suicide prevention programs and an additional state suicide prevention coordinator through the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Eliason said he wants a statewide prevention program following the model of Provo School District, which hasn’t had a student suicide since the program was adopted in 2005.
Robles’ bill easily passed through a Senate committee, but Froerer’s bill was held by the House Education Committee, although there are signs it eventually will pass with some tweaking.
One member of the House Education committee wondered aloud if the issue would better be handled by the school districts, but Eliason said the districts have not carried the ball, and only about one-fifth of school districts nationwide have adopted a suicide-prevention program.
Davis County School Board member Peter Cannon agreed at the committee hearing that school districts were better equipped to address the issue than the Legislature.
But once, during a school board meeting, Cannon suggested that students on the subsidized lunch program be given lunch tickets in a different color, which obviously would humiliate low-income students and make them vulnerable to bullying.
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