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 - and Gov. Doug Ducey on May 8 made it a law.
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 was titled "The Mitch Warnock Act" by its chief champion, Ahwatukee state Sen Sean Bowie, in honor of the son of a Mountain Pointe High School teacher Lorie Adair's 16-year-old son, who took his life when he was a senior at Corona del Sol High three years ago.
'Suicide has become a significant public health issue in the United States,” said Ducey. “We’ve already lost too many young people to suicide and I’m glad that Arizona is taking action by training the first responders in our schools – our guidance counselors, teachers and administrators – on how to identify the warning signs that lead to suicide.”
Mitch's parents expressed their gratitude, as did a Gilbert couple, Ben and Denise Denslow, who founded the suicide nonprofit The Jem Foundation after their 16-year-old son took his life several years ago - and Bowie too.
"As teachers, we appreciate that our public schools are the hub of our community and that all of us have a role to play in helping our children," said Timothy Warnock and Lorie Adair. "We believe this bipartisan initiative will save countless lives from an often impulsive act of desperation. We are grateful to the state of Arizona."
"We thank Governor Ducey for rejecting the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide, and for acknowledging the enormity of this crisis in the State of Arizona, particularly among our youth," said the Denslows. "SB 1468 recognizes the importance of early intervention and the important role teachers have in the lives of our students by ensuring they can identify a potential crisis and refer students to the appropriate help."
I" want to thank Gov. Ducey for signing SB 1468 into law," said Bowie. "This is an important first step to address teen suicides in Arizona, and I will continue to work with him and my legislative colleagues to further address this critical issue,” sai
The law 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.
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 earlier this year 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 passage of the bill.
“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 indirectly 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 the next two years for additional counselors.
“When fully implemented, the additional investment in school counselors is estimated to reduce Arizona’s counselor to student caseload by 17 percent,” he said in a release.
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 indirectly noted that looming 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.