SALT LAKE CITY — A number of laws aimed at preventing youth suicides were passed this year by the Utah Legislature, but, according to one lawmaker, those efforts have been strained by a misunderstanding of what teachers are and are not allowed to discuss with students.
On Wednesday, Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, presented a bill that would amend a Utah statute on suicide prevention, clarifying the role of teachers, administrators and school faculty in looking for warning signs and preventing deaths.
"I felt it extremely necessary to run this bill to clarify that all the other work we’ve done in this category will be in vain if we can’t even talk about (suicide)," he said. "When a suicide happens in a school, it’s a hot potato. They don’t know what to say."
Eliason's bill, which has not yet been numbered but was approved by the Education Interim Committee Wednesday, states that school personnel who believe a student may be a danger to themselves or others may question the student on their emotional state. It also reiterates the need to involve parents when a student displays concerning behavior and for school districts to design and implement suicide prevention and "postvention" plans.
Eliason gave the example of injured student-athletes who are immediately swarmed by school officials asking if they can move their toes and fingers. But when a teacher sees a student exhibiting potentially suicidal behavior, they hesitate before asking questions.
"The risk of doing nothing, or leaving the status quo, is much greater than the risk of doing something," he said of the bill.
Utah's youth suicide rate is currently among the highest in the nation and is the second leading cause of death for teens in the state.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Martell Menlove said that since the most recent bills on suicide prevention were passed — including increased requirements for parent notification and suicide prevention seminars at the district level — the State Office of Education has received a lot of questions from educators unsure about what they're legally allowed to do.
He said his office had worked with Eliason in drafting the bill and, while the State School Board had not yet taken an official position, he expects them to support the proposal.
"I believe the clarification here is needed and I believe it will allow for the intention that the bill and the representative has in mind," Menlove said. "I can tell you there has been some confusion."
While the bill ultimately passed the committee, several members expressed some concerns. Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake and a former educator, said teachers are not always made aware if a student is dealing with issues of mental and emotional health and she asked if schools could face litigation for failing to act.
"There’s information that’s not shared with (teachers) and I do have a concern, somewhat, about liability issues with the schools," she said.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, commented on the way a school suicide can often lead to copycat acts of self-harm. He asked if increased discussion about suicide by untrained school employees could potentially lead to more incidents.
"How do we, by raising awareness and by bringing the issue up, avoid causing the things we’re trying to prevent?" he said.
Eliason referred to other laws in Utah statue that direct schools and school districts to work to mitigate the effects of a suicide.
"It's critical when it happens that we step in," he said. "The problem is, people don't know what to say."
He said the intention of the bill is to better empower educators to have the conversations that could potentially save a student's life.
"Experience would indicate people, they do not want to talk about this," he said. "They shy away from it, and that’s part of the problem."
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