Alarmed by the rash of teens who took their life last year in multiple area school districts, including Tempe Union, state Sen. Sean Bowie has introduced a bill requiring suicide-prevention training for all teachers and staff.
The measure would mandate two hours of training in the 2019-2020 school year in all school districts and charter schools for all “counselors, teachers, principals and other school personnel who work with pupils in grades six through 12.”
The bill would require in-person rather than online training and the use of “evidence-based” material – meaning it must be rooted in data, academic research or scientific findings.
It would cover suicide prevention, warning signs of suicidal behavior in adolescents and teens and intervention and referral techniques.
As reported by AFN in September, seven East Valley teens ages 13 to 18 killed themselves in a six-week period between mid-July and Labor Day last year. In all those cases, the teens were described as popular, academically successful students.
Since that time, at least three other teens in area districts also have taken their lives.
There have been three suicides in the last three school years at Corona del Sol High School alone.
Among those Corona students was Mitch Warnock, the son of Mountain Pointe High School English teacher Laurie Warnock.
Bowie has subtitled his bill “The Mitch Warnock Act.”
“I met with Lorie several times and I wanted to put a story behind this bill and help educate my colleagues on how we’re losing our young people to suicide,” Bowie said.
“This is not just a local problem or a state problem,” he added. “This is a national problem.”
“I am a teacher as well as being Mitch Warnock’s mom,” she said. “What troubles me beyond belief is that in my 26 years of educating students, I have never been trained in identifying students at risk for depression, self harm or suicide.
“I worked at Aprende when a child took his life near the track the second week of school. We were not adequately trained regarding student distress even after that traumatic event. Rather, we were told that depressed children do not kill themselves but angry ones do. This information was neither evidence-based nor accurate. In no way did this tack address other students suffering in our school.”
“We teachers may see students struggling but avoid addressing it for fear of saying the wrong thing or triggering an action,” Warnock added. “Actually, not talking about suicide leads to death by suicide rather versus talking openly.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-24 and that one in six high school students have reported having suicidal thoughts while one in 12 reported attempting suicide within a 12-month period.
School administrators often resist new mandates, and Bowie said he will be reaching out to superintendents in Legislative District 18 and other areas to gain their support.
He added that Gilbert Public Schools is one of the few districts in the area that already is doing much of what his bill would require.
“I understand it’s a mandate and school districts are not particularly fond of mandates,” he said. “For me, there is no other way to do it.”
But the proposed mandatory nature of the training triggered conflicting reactions.
Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely said that while “student safety is always Kyrene’s first priority,” she hopes that Bowie’s bill also “provides adequate funding to support the implementation of its requirements.”
She said that to effectively implement the bill, Kyrene and other districts require “additional means to support the time and staffing to hire nurses, counselors, social workers and/or school psychologists from preschool through high school.
“To legislate this requirement outside of the vision for academic excellence and core funding creates a system that risks fragmentation,” she added, noting that her district continues to “look for and adopt practices in which these types of trainings are integrated into our system of support for children.”
While state Rep. Mitzi Epstein, Bowie’s fellow Legislative District 18 Democrat in the House, signed on as a co-sponsor, Republican state Rep. Jill Norgaard’s position echoes that of Vesely.
“This bill is an unfunded mandate of required professional development for our teachers,” Norgaard said, adding that teachers who took trainign as an elective could then be advocates for suicide prevention in their schools
“While we are diligently working to increase the level of awareness and educate parents, teachers and students on the teen suicide crisis, I believe we should add it as an elective,” she said.
She noted that the Legislature, partly through its support of Gov. Ducey’s initiative on opioids and an ongoing look at connections between suicide and drug addiction, is attempting to find solutions to the problem of rising teen suicides.
Warnock disagrees, stating that even after a Corona del Sol student killed himself on campus, “nothing was done in our district to train faculty and staff including coaches on what to look for.”
“To date, we have not been trained in terms of what to listen for, which behaviors indicate a student may be at-risk for suicide, and the like,” she said, adding:
“The district is rolling out a plan to offer training opportunities for teachers which is laudable; however, this would be after school, on teacher’s own time.
“This bill would require districts to embed the training during teachers’ required in-service training days; it could easily be incorporated in the required safety practices such as fire drills and lockdowns. Further, every teacher would be armed with the same information and the same protocol to protect all children.”
Tempe Union Superintendent Kenneth Baca said, “I have not seen the bill but I do think it is important that we support teachers and provide them with tools to help address the social and emotional wellness of our students.”
Chandler Unified spokesman Terry Locke said his district already requires training far beyond what Bowie is looking for.
All faculty from kindergarten through grade 12 must get suicide-prevention training twice a year from a lead counselor or psychologist.
“This training includes a review of warning signs as well as the process of recognition and notification to school counselor or school psychologist for an assessment,” Locke added.
Currently, nine states require annual suicide-prevention training for school personnel and another 16 also mandate it but don’t specify whether it must be done annually.
Such training is an annual requirement in Alaska, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas.
The other 16 that mandate it but don’t specify whether it must be annual are Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.
Bowie’s bill would require the training annually.
Bowie said that counselors at Mountain Pointe have told him that teens face enormous social and emotional pressure that can drive them to consider suicide.
“Guidance counselors tell me that 10 years ago, 90 percent of the issues they saw involved traditional advising, schedules and such and only 10 percent involved social or emotional issues,” Bowie said, adding:
“Now, that’s reversed and 90 percent of what they see are students with emotional and social problems.”
Those problems range from issues related to social media, such as cyber bullying, and other pressures that make it difficult for some teens to cope.
“Guidance counselors are not equipped to deal with social and emotional issues,” Bowie said, noting that training would enable school personnel to identify at-risk students and get them professional help.