By PAUL MARYNIAK
GSN Executive Editor
In a rare display of bipartisanship, Democrats and Republicans in the State Legislature unanimously passed a bill requiring suicide prevention training for all school personnel who deal with students in grades 6 through 12.
Responding to the anguish of parents who lost sons and daughters to suicide – including 33 in Gilbert, Chandler, Mesa and Queen Creek and five others in neighboring communities since July 2017 – both chambers last week wasted little time in passing the bill.
The bill mandates training every three years for teachers, administrators and even bus drivers who have contact with kids and teens in public and charter schools. The training must be “evidence-based” – meaning that it must have proven effectiveness in helping to identify suicidal tendencies and knowing how to respond.
The training will not be required until the 2020-21 school year and at the behest of some lawmakers, notably Gilbert Republican Sen. Eddie Farnsworth, school personnel would not be held civilly liable for any actions in connection with the bill except in cases of gross negligence, willful misconduct or intentional wrongdoing.
Awaiting Gov. Doug Ducey’s signature at press time, the bill was sponsored by state Sen. Sean Bowie, an Ahwatukee Democrat whose district also includes parts of Chandler, Mesa and Tempe.
And while Bowie shepherded the bill through at least four committee hearings, support from two influential Chandler Republicans – Rep. Jeff Weninger and Sen. J.D. Mesnard – helped the bill succeed in this session after it failed to pass last year.
Weninger was indirectly touched by the problem: a friend of his son took his life last year. Mesnard had attended several meetings in his district, which includes part of Gilbert, where parents and professionals discussed strategies for curbing what has become a major mental health issue for teenagers in Arizona and across the nation.
Saying he is “very happy to see the bill pass both chambers and head to the governor’s desk,” Bowie also underscored the two Republican lawmakers’ support, calling them “champions on this issue and integral to the bill passing both chambers.”
In the long run, though, the critical impetus behind the bill’s success were the parents of teens lost to suicide.
Their anguish reduced several Democratic and Republican members of at least two committees to tears as they recounted how teachers or administrators might have been able to help their children had they been trained in identifying suicidal tendencies and what to do about it.
Katey McPherson, a Chandler educator who has been one of the state’s most outspoken proponents of suicide prevention training, hailed the bill’s passage.
“After years of parents who have lost children to suicide quietly and forcefully waging a fight to provide suicide prevention services and mental health resources in schools and communities, Arizona showed up for kids,” she said. “Hopefully this is just the first step in bipartisan support of youth mental health and wellness as we fight this public health crisis.”
McPherson was referring to another looming issue in the teen suicide crisis – adequate counseling staff at schools.
Dozens of teens across the Valley last winter and early this year appeared before school boards imploring them to ask the Legislature to provide funding for more counselors and social workers.
Gov Doug Ducey has allocated $12 million over two years for more counselors.
While grateful for the money, school officials also say it’s not nearly enough for districts where counselors have as many as 1,200 students to respond to.
Further, many students in appearances before East Valley school boards this year talked of how counselors often are burdened with numerous clerical and administrative duties that make it impossible for them to have enough time to meet with troubled students who want to talk to them – or with students who know of classmates who are struggling and may be a threat to themselves or others.
Bowie noted that issue, calling passage of the training bill “a first step, but a significant one, in addressing the teen suicide crisis we have in the East Valley.”
“I look forward to continue working with parents and schools in future years to further address this issue and get our teachers and educators the training and tools they need to help spot the warning signs before it’s too late,” he said.