By Jim Walsh, GSN Staff Writer
Only days after a 16-year-old Mesa student hung herself in her parents’ garage, an Ahwatukee legislator last week introduced the latest version of a bill aimed at helping to prevent teen suicide and drew support from lawmakers who represent part of Gilbert.
Sen. Sean Bowie’s bill would require the training every three years of all school personnel working in grades 6-12 in recognizing the early warning signs of teen suicide and appropriate intervention techniques.
The bill comes as the Mesa teen’s death brought to 33 the number of teenagers in the East Valley who have taken their lives since May 2017.
The act is modeled after an initiative undertaken last year by Tempe Union High School District, which trained everyone from school bus drivers to teachers and principals in recognizing the early warning signs, using a consortium of experts organized by Teen Lifeline.
In September 2018, more than 800 Tempe Union employees received the training in two-hour blocks on two consecutive days.
Bowie has named his bill the Mitch Warnock Act in memory of a champion pole-vaulter who took his own life in October 2016. His mother, Lorie, an English teacher at Mountain Pointe High School, has been a champion of suicide prevention.
“I think this is a great first step to open up a courageous conversation,’’ said Katey McPherson, an East Valley education consultant and former teacher and assistant principal for Gilbert Public Schools.
“This bill is addressing a public health crisis,’’ McPherson said. “Any bill with this kind of bipartisan support speaks volumes about how a problem is impacting a community.’’
“One child is too many,’’ said McPherson, a mother of four who has been building a network of educators and parents to address the growing problem of teen suicides. “We caught the attention of the right people. Now, we need to get it passed.’’
The hope is that a cafeteria worker, a school bus driver, or a teacher will notice changes in a student’s behavior and notify a school counselor or someone else who can get that student psychological help.
“I have softened the mandate considerably from last year,’’ said Bowie, whose first suicide prevention training bill last year required yearly training on the warning signs.
The Arizona School Boards Association opposed it as an unfunded mandate, and the bill never got a hearing.
This time, Democrat Bowie has drawn the support of a number of Republican legislators who also are alarmed by the trend in teen suicides.
Bowie said the three-year requirement was added to appease school districts, which could train their staff during regularly scheduled in-service sessions and also use online training.
“I am hoping they will start with this as a minimum state standard and improve upon it,’’ Bowie said. “I think there is broad agreement that we need to do something.’’
Bowie said 26 states require yearly training and several others require it at longer intervals.
Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, said the teen suicide problem has turned into an epidemic and that training in recognizing the early warning signs of suicide is essential to saving lives. A friend of Weninger’s son took his life last year.
Weninger said the bipartisan support lined up by Bowie for the bill demonstrates that the epidemic is a widespread social problem and that a strong response is needed.
Besides Weninger, Republicans who are joining Democrats to support the legislation include Chandler Sen. J.D Mesnard and Phoenix Sen. Heather Carter. Bowie said the entire delegation that represents Ahwatukee, Tempe and Chandler support SB1468.
“To me, this is bipartisan issue,’’ Weninger said. “It’s an all included community issue.’’
“I am hoping everyone comes together to work on this legislation,’’ Weninger said. “For me, it doesn’t matter if I am on top of this bill or the bottom of this bill, as long as we get it through.’’
Mesnard said he is hopeful the bill will be more palatable for the Arizona School Boards Association.
Mesnard and Weninger also met with Gov. Doug Ducey’s office in hopes of winning support for the bill.
“I think its chances are pretty good,’’ Mesnard said. “This has been a step-by-step process as we share our concerns.’’
Nikki Kontz, clinical director of Teen Lifeline, who helped coordinate a group of mental health providers that trained Tempe Union staff, said training was no small task, so the three-year requirement is reasonable.
“I don’t think three years is too far off. It’s going to take some time initially. Three years takes some pressure off the districts,’’ Kontz said. “It gives them some time to make sure things are rolled out properly.’’
She said the training, which focuses more attention on the behavioral needs of children, would “create an environment of compassion and connection for the kids.’’
The bill also requires the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System to post an approved training program to its website by July 1, 2020, along with a list of approved training materials.
Kontz said this requirement also is important to give guidance to some school districts, which may find suicide prevention an “unchartered territory.’’
Many East Valley districts have extensive suicide prevention programs, including Mesa and Gilbert public schools, Kyrene and Tempe Union.
While it is disturbing to think about the list of students who have taken their own lives, “there are many others who have been saved,’’ Kontz said.