Red Mountain High alumna Hillary Whalen

Red Mountain High alumna Hillary Whalen tells the Mesa school board how a female student’s suicide Feb. 1 shows “we are in a public health crisis.”  

With only a Gilbert and a Mesa senator voting against it, a teen suicide prevention bill was overwhelmingly passed by the State Senate last week.

The bill, which moves to the House this week, requires that all school personnel dealing with students in grades 6-12 receive training every three years on how to recognize the early warning signs of teen suicide.

Unbeknownst to the Senate, a Mesa mother underscored the need for that training a day earlier, Feb. 26, as she told the Mesa Public Schools Governing Board about her 14-year-old son’s suicide in August 2017.

Jennifer Stewart told the board that she and her husband were concerned that their son, Braxton, had been a “kind, happy and gifted young man with a bright future” and that shortly after beginning his freshman year at Red Mountain High School, “his grades began to drop, and he quit turning in his assignments several times.”

“I eventually reached out to his teachers for help and advice,” she said. “The response I received from his teachers, ‘this is the typical response of a gifted 14-year-old boy during puberty and it’s nothing to worry about.’ A few weeks later, he ended his life.”

Christina Nguyen, of Project Connect 4 and a suicide prevention advocate, told the board that there have been 38 teen suicides in the East Valley since July 2017.

 “We have lost who you would describe as the typical American teenager, who has everything going for them on the outside,” Nguyen said. “Our youth are in crisis.”

Said student Sophia Hammon: “A lot of kids are struggling and don’t know where else to turn and unfortunately many choose alternate routes by harming themselves or taking it out on others.”

Sen. Sean Bowie, who sponsored the prevention bill, was buoyed by its passage.

“The more this happens, the more people are engaged on this issue,” said Bowie, whose district includes Ahwatukee and parts of Mesa, Tempe and Chandler. “We are halfway there. We still need to get it through the House.”

Democrat Bowie and Chandler Republican Sen. J.D. Mesnard spoke in favor the bill. The only no votes were cast by Republicans Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert and David Farnsworth of Mesa.

Eddie Farnsworth said he supports the suicide prevention training but was opposed to an indemnity provision. Bowie said he is working with Farnsworth to address his concerns.

Bowie said that most school districts in the East Valley are either meeting or exceeding the bill’s requirements.

The bill is largely based upon the Tempe Union High School District as a template. Tempe Union, which has seen at least three students take their lives in the past four years, trained more than 800 employees.

While the bill creates a minimum standard for suicide prevention throughout the state, Bowie said he also hopes school districts will exceed those standards and develop more expertise on the issue.

“You ask parents and teachers about it, and most common comment is, ‘It’s about time,’” Bowie said.

Similar bipartisan support is expected in the House as Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, and Rep. Mitzi Epstein, D-Tempe, are among the co-sponsors.

“Our young people are taking their lives, when they are just starting their lives,” Mesnard said. “I can’t think of anything more tragic than when a child does this.”

A senior at Mesa’s Westwood High School told the Mesa school board last week, “At my school or just about any school you go to, you hear kids in the hallways saying like, I can’t wait to die, can’t wait to kill myself, things like that as jokes and it has gotten to the point where people can no longer tell if these kids are joking.”

Parent Hillary Whalen, a Red Mountain High School graduate and mother of five, called attention to a Feb. 1 suicide by a teen at her alma mater.

“We are in a public health crisis,” she said. “We need a comprehensive, ongoing program that is best-practice and evidence-based that is the same at every school starting in fifth grade through high school. This cannot be reactive. It needs to be proactive.”

Stewart lamented the absence of training when addressing the Mesa board.

She said during her late son’s freshman orientation, “there was a lot of talk about schedules, dress codes, which I didn’t see enforced at all, and a multitude of forms to fill out in triplicate regarding home addresses and bus schedules, but not one mention of mental health, not one pamphlet or talk about suicide warning signs, the pressure of transitioning to high school and college prep or how to handle bullying.

“Two days after Braxton died, suicide helpline stickers went on the back of all the student ID badges. It’s a little too late if you ask me,” she added. “I don’t need a tutorial on researching my child’s grades if my child is dead.’’

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