By PAUL MARYNIAK,GSN Executive Editor

Mandatory suicide prevention training for school personnel appeared closer to becoming a reality last week as a second House committee unanimously approved it.

As their counterparts on the House Education Committee did during a March 18 hearing, some members of the House Judiciary Committee last week wept as mothers who lost teens to suicide told them their sons might be alive today had teachers, principals and other school personnel recognized their children’s plight and knew what to do about it.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Sean Bowie, whose district includes parts of other East Valley cities, so far has been powered through the legislature with strong bipartisan support, particularly from Chandler lawmakers Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Rep. Jeff Weninger, whose district includes part of Gilbert.

But it was the mothers of suicide victims whose testimony clearly moved legislators to continue the process for passing the bill, which requires all school personnel who deal with students in sixth through 12th grade undergo training every three years in proven techniques for recognizing suicidal children and teens and knowing what to do to help them.

 “There really is a crisis when it comes to our young people and teen suicide, particularly in the East Valley,” Bowie told the Education Committee.

Added five-year legislator Weninger: “I have never testified on another person’s bill in a committee that wasn’t mine. To me, this is that important through the whole state to get this done.”

After what is expected to be a routine review by the House Rules Committee, the bill will go before the full chamber. Assuming it passes, it will then return to the Senate for a second approval because some changes have been made since the Senate overwhelmingly passed it last month.

Both Bowie and Weninger were referring to the suicides of 33 teens from Chandler, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek since July 2017 and at least five more in Scottsdale and SanTan Valley.

Mountain Pointe English teacher Lori Warnock – whose only child Mitch took his life as a student at Corona del Sol High School two years and five months ago and for whom the bill is named – was one of several mothers who told both committees in gut-wrenching detail why training was so vital.

She recalled that after Mitch died, “the teachers were told by administrators not to speak about suicide because it would encourage the other children to kill themselves. 

“We were told the young man who died by suicide wasn’t depressed because depressed people wouldn’t have the energy to kill themselves, rather he was angry. The implication was that his family was dysfunctional and so we ignored the rest of our students who suffered in the week after his death,” she said. 

“I can attest that children who died by suicide do not all come from dysfunctional families. Ours was not one. There’s a lot of misinformation that can be corrected by the free training provided by a number of suicide prevention organizations,” Warnock said, adding:

“No plan, no evidence-based training has devastating results. I know that to be true from personal experience. Suicide clusters are a real phenomenon and we have the data to back that claim up in the East Valley where I reside.”

She was referring to the fact that since July 2017, 33 East Valley teens in Chandler, Mesa, Gilbert and Queen Creek – along with five more in nearby communities – have taken their lives.

She noted that Tempe Union last year had 800 teachers and other staff undergo training offered and now know “signs of depression, anxiety and suicide, and know what to say, what to do and precisely who to talk to.”

“I am not an expert on behavioral health,” she said. “I am not a counselor, but now I know the words to use and where to go with the information I glean from suicide prevention training.”

LeAnn Hull, who has lobbied for suicide prevention training since her 16-year-old son took his life in 2012, recalled how “I didn’t know anything about suicide, but I knew that there were things going on with my son,” who was bullied by a teacher.

“He loved life, he loved what he was doing,” she said, noting how the teacher had failed him on a paper because he didn’t write between the margins. 

“I pleaded with the head of the department, who had ignored me,” she recalled. “I pleaded with his counselor who told me four days before Andy shot himself that he’d get back to me because the seniors were more important and Andy would be fine. I pleaded with the dean of students, but because they don’t know what to do, they’re not educated.”

After another episode, she said, her son left his closed campus at 9 a.m., went home and fatally shot himself.

A college student told the committee that she knew Hull’s son when she was a high school freshman, breaking down in tears when she recalled his suicide and that of another student three months later.

“The heartbreak we all went through is something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone and I dream that this bill will save more families and communities from this heartbreak,” she said. “So many of us share the belief this bill will give teachers the tools that I didn’t see in my four years of high school when it comes to suicide prevention. I strongly believe that you can never be too careful because every single life matters.”

Sheila Ortega Hedstrom Pelger told the committee about her 17-year-old son Tyler’s suicide, a week before he was to start his senior year.

“During the fall of his junior year, Tyler was found by two of his female classmates on multiple occasions sobbing in a dark supply room,” she said. “The first two times they comforted him and talked with him. The third time they went to the teacher with their concerns. The teacher knew Tyler very well. He sympathized with his despair, but did not escalate this to a counselor and did not notify me. He was not trained in suicide prevention. I didn’t know about these incidents until about six months after Tyler died.

“I just want to make it very clear that I don’t blame anybody including our family, including the teachers, but I do know that that was one opportunity missed. It’s a fact that depression usually precedes suicide and I believe that teachers and staff can save lives with this training so they can recognize the signs of depression, anxiety and suicide risk,” she added.

Members of the committee were rattled by the parade of witnesses and some passed a box of Kleenex among them.

Kingman Republican Rep. Regina Cobb fought back tears in vain as she explained why she was voting for the bill and two members talked about suicides in their own family – one, Pinal Republican John Fillmore, talked of how his daughter 15 years ago called him frantically about how she “tried to put his brains back in his head.”

Mesa Republican Kelly Townsend said, “I can’t say I understand what you’re going through, but what I can say is that I know that there are no words that I can say to make it any better.”

Townsend also told the mothers, “Thank you on behalf of the parents in the future who are not going to lose her children because of what you’re doing here, I know it doesn’t make it any better for you, but there will be lives saved because of you.”

Education Committee Chair Michelle Udall, a Mesa Republican, also thanked the mothers “for sharing, for taking something so horrific in your lives and trying to use your experience to make the world better, make our state better.”

Udall, a part-time teacher, added, “I can tell you that teachers do want this training. They want to know how they can help. They see children in distress and they want to know how they can help.”