Michelle Deininger: Fight the bullies, save some lives

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Following the first initial report by the suicide task force highlighting crisis response, reducing risk factors and protective measures, banners were placed on the front steps of the Utah Capitol where 25 doves were released representing the 25 attempts for every suicide death.

When our family moved to Utah from Massachusetts in 2018, we were thrilled at the prospect of mountain living, an absence of mosquitoes and the West’s live-and-let-live vibe.

We were less thrilled about swapping the number one state in per-student spending for the state that is dead last in the country in the amount it spends on students. Our kids had only ever attended public schools with excellent teachers and small class sizes, and we wondered nervously about school quality and academic strength.

We decided we’d give the schools a try, and if they were too academically backward or resource-strapped we’d opt out and go the private route. We learned quickly that Park City schools are excellent, in no small part because they augment anemic state funding with a robust, tourism-fueled local tax base and an education foundation contribution of more than $1 million just last year.

As we got to know the state, we puzzled over how Utah could even be in last place, with its 3% unemployment well below national average, Salt Lake City’s ranking as the third fastest-growing city in country, and a statewide economy that is booming, diverse and envied nationally.

The fact that Utah has the money but chooses not to spend it on education was like a dirty secret related to its other dirty secret — that Utah kids commit suicide at triple the national average.

Make no mistake, those statistics are related. To break it down: More funding means more resources to identify kids at risk and provide them with what they need to succeed and find their path to peace and mental health. More education funding means more people taking care of our kids and helping them achieve their potential.

The Utah State Board of Education can’t do anything about being underfunded. That is the domain of those who voters elect to the state Legislature and their budgeting decisions. What the state board can do, like a frugal family on a tight budget, is carefully determine how to spend the funds it has to stretch those dollars and nourish students to the greatest extent possible.

Which makes the current item on the board’s chopping block that much more incomprehensible.

On Jan. 9, the State Board of Education sent to a committee a proposal to weaken Utah’s anti-bullying legislation and remove provisions that provide teacher training in combating bullying. The board’s Law and Licensing Committee is scheduled to review the proposed changes at its public meeting Feb. 6.

Question for the board of education: Do you truly want to be known, in 2020, for being not just the entire country’s worst funded schools, whose students end their own lives at triple the national rate, but also as the board that rolled back anti-bullying initiatives? Does that not seem tremendously embarrassing (in addition to being life-threateningly dangerous).

Please, please, take another look.

Continuing to prioritize anti-bullying efforts will save lives. How many lives, we can not know. Let’s assume one life per school in the state each year. I’m estimating conservatively, even though as adults we all know that pretty much every single classroom has a bullying victim. Or at least that used to be the case, before anti-bullying efforts became standard practice.

Does one student per each entire school sound too high? Fine. How about one Utah student per district?

Keep anti-bullying programs. Save 41 children’s lives each year.

Michelle Martin Deininger

Michelle Deininger is a former daily newspaper reporter and editor, now a freelance writer. She lives in Park City and has two children in public schools.