Rep. Steven Eliason hopes that by putting the attention on youths and children, he can gain support for more formally teaching parents how to identify warning signs and seek help for those who are struggling.

SALT LAKE CITY — Each day, two Utah youths are treated for attempted suicide and every 11 days, a Utah child succeeds at taking his or her own life. 

Drawing figures from the Utah Health Department, Rep. Steven Eliason shared those sobering statistics Tuesday while presenting his bill, HB298, to the House Education Committee.

The Sandy Republican hopes that by putting the attention on youths and children, he can gain support for more formally teaching parents how to identify warning signs and seek help for those who are struggling.

Similar to a bill that failed on the last day of the 2012 legislative session, HB298 would direct school districts to hold an annual seminar for parents on the topics of mental health, bullying, substance abuse and Internet safety. The seminars would be voluntary for parents, and school districts would, per an amendment to the bill, be able to opt-out if local school boards determine the need for such seminars is insufficient.

But Eliason's testimony made it clear that the representative believes there is a need, in all school districts in the state, for parents to be better equipped at identifying warning signs and helping their children through the issues that face adolescents.

A quiet epidemic

He compared the loss of life from suicide in Utah to the recent school shooting in Newtown, Conn., but said that because suicides happen quietly, one tragedy at a time, the issue has gone untreated for years with little discussion from educators, lawmakers and the public.

"The nature of this epidemic is that it’s the second leading killer of our children," he said. "If those kinds of numbers happened in a school shooting at one time, the overwhelming public response would be deafening. But when it happens a few at a time, we don’t like to talk about it."

Eliason said he began researching the issue several years ago after a middle school in Canyons School District experienced three suicides in a single year. He said the father of one of those students approached him and asked what could be done, as did members of the Boy Scout troop for which Eliason served as Scoutmaster.

"Two of them, independently, brought up the issue that children had been dying at their school," he said.

Since then, Canyons has regularly held seminars, referred to as Adolescent Issues Nights. District spokesman Jeff Haney said two events are held each year and are attended by about 200 parents.

"We deem them a success," he said. "We felt like the participants really walked away with something they could use."

Is legislation needed?

But several members of the House Education Committee, while expressing concern for the topics addressed in Eliason's bill, questioned whether a mandate from the Legislature to hold seminars was necessary for, or even beneficial to schools.

Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said that school districts like Canyons are already able to hold seminars similar to those described in the bill and that additional requirements from the Legislature only add a burden to educators and potentially draw resources away from instruction on reading, writing and arithmetic. 

"I am deeply concerned about the mandates we lay on education," Nielson said. "Our role is to fund, not to do that kind of management, general control and supervision."

Rep. Val Peterson, R-Orem, agreed and questioned whether the bill is effective given the provision that districts can opt-out of providing the seminars.

"If a community or school board feels like they need to step in and do something, then they have that option to do it," he said. "We don’t need to mandate it."

Pamela Atkinson, a community advocate and chairwoman of the Utah Coalition Against Pornography, spoke in favor of the bill. She said her organization, like other social advocacy groups, is willing to provide resources and information to schools or even present during the seminars to lessen the burden placed on the education community.

"We are just not reaching enough children," she said.

Eliason said the bill is not designed to place a burden on schools but rather asks school boards to use existing resources and facilities to provide a setting where parents have the ability to learn from professionals.

He said the bill makes it clear that parents are responsible to watch for warning signs in a student's development, but also provides a chance for them to educate themselves on the issues their children face.

"This is not a comprehensive approach, it doesn’t solve all the problems, but if it saves one life, its definitely worth it," he said

The bill was ultimately advanced through the committee by a 9-3 vote. It will now go before the full House for debate.

E-mail: [email protected]