When Catherine Voutaz’s son ended his own life last year, the mother said Thursday, it was “like a bomb going off,” with shrapnel hitting family, friends and neighbors.
Her son Chandler was an AP and concurrent-enrollment student at Herriman High School, with loving parents and dreams of being an oncologist and taking an upcoming trip to Spain.
“Why would my child do that?” Voutaz asked. “It’s a loss to the community and the entire world that he is gone.”
Over the past year, many more bombs have gone off at Herriman High in Jordan School District. Votaz’s son was among the first in a string of at least six suicides of students at the school, including a teenager who reportedly died Wednesday evening.
On Thursday, Voutaz spoke at the monthly meeting of the Utah Board of Education, imploring members to take action as the state’s suicide rate continues to hover among the highest in the nation, particularly for Utah teens.
“I don’t purport to know what is going on in our [school] district,” Voutaz told board members. “All of them are at risk. There’s something going on, and you all have the opportunity to make a difference.”
Shortly after Votaz’s remarks, board members unanimously approved a new grant program intended to fund partnerships between Utah’s school districts and mental health agencies.
Under the five-year pilot program — named Advancing Wellness and Resiliency in Education, or AWARE — three school districts are expected to be awarded up to $1.8 million in total annual funding. The grants will pay to train school personnel on how to respond to mental health issues and connect students and families with help.
“This is all hands on deck,” said board member Kathleen Riebe. “Everybody in our community should be involved and everyone should be educated.”
Jordan School District also announced Thursday that crisis counseling teams were active at Herriman High as district officials continue to make stepped-up mental health services available to students and members of the community.
While the state board’s support of the new suicide-prevention grants was unanimous, some members expressed reservations about the approach.
Alisa Ellis, the board’s vice chairwoman, suggested the grants would be a “band-aid.” Government solutions, she said, are inherently secular, ignoring what Ellis believes to be a underlying issue driving suicide and emotional trauma.
“One of the root causes is that we have ejected God from the public square in a lot of instances,” Ellis said. “We’re not allowed to talk openly about our belief in a higher power sometimes.”
Utah’s suicide rate is a problem that is bigger than the education system, Ellis said, and is unlikely to be solved there.
“We have got to stop looking to the government for solutions and make sure that we are going to the family to find help,” she said, “because that’s where solutions can really be found.”
Lisa Cummins, who represents Herriman and southwest Salt Lake County on the state school board, said her community was in “crisis mode.”
She cautioned against taking actions simply “because [we] don’t know what else to do” and pressed board staff for details on the grant program before casting her vote.
Cummins also questioned whether youth suicide is being “glorified,” referring to a late-April showcase of theater performances by high school students that generated discussion on social media.
“One of them was a pantomime of suicide,” Cummins said of one dance performance. “I cannot support ill-equipping our people with very minimal skills and expect our community as a whole to survive this.”
District board member Darrell Robinson said he received a number of calls about the incident from concerned parents. He said artistic pieces such as the April 24 one can serve as an outlet to express complex emotions, adding that student performances are often planned at the start of the school year.
“It’s always easier in hindsight to make decisions, I think,” Robinson said. “If I was a teacher knowing what I know now, I still would have done it. But I think there should have been a dedication or a warning, perhaps. And we should have talked about the role of theater in the community.”
At Thursday’s school board meeting, Cummins questioned why schools are being tasked with suicide prevention in lieu of community and religious groups. She also suggested that schoolwork and mandatory testing are driving students to take their lives, an assertion she has made on multiple occasions.
“Where are the communities of pastors and preachers and religious organizations?” she asked. “Where are the organizations of parents who need a step up and accept accountability and responsibility?”
Board member Terryl Warner said the grant program would provide necessary training to teachers, and make it easier for students to get the help they need. Warner, who works as a victims’ advocate in the Cache County attorney’s office, said the agency sees an average of two deaths per week as a result of suicide.
“Talking about it is gone,” she said. “Acting on it is something we have to do.”
Reporter Lillian Reed contributed to this report.
Correction: May 3, 10:30 p.m. • An earlier version of this story misspelled Chandler Voutaz's name.