SALT LAKE CITY — In 2010, 70 Utahns between the ages of 15 and 24 years old committed suicide. And each subsequent year families have continued to mourn with school and church communities as young people take their own lives.
Karen Peterson, who operates the blog Utah Moms Care, said several affected schools held special community events on the subject of suicide following the tragedies.
She said a fellow parent who attended one such event expressed concern to her privately that the discussion was taking place after the tragedy of a child's death and not before when it could have potentially been prevented.
"The sad reality is that until we are touched personally by one of these events, we put seminars like these off. It is human nature," Peterson said. "Parents are busy, and without a compelling interest, they often do not attend such seminars."
Whether parents choose to attend or not, one lawmaker wants to make sure that potentially lifesaving resources and information are available. Rep. Steven Eliason, R-Sandy, has introduced a bill that would require all school districts in the state to hold annual seminars for parents on topics such as bullying, substance abuse, Internet safety and suicide prevention.
HB298 has passed in the House and Thursday was advanced unanimously by the Senate Education Committee. It has so far secured strong majorities on the hill, with several lawmakers and education officials expressing their support for the bill and concern about curbing Utah's alarmingly high rate of teen suicide.
Dawn Davies, vice president for legislation with the Utah Parent Teacher Association, said the group supports HB298 and added that organizations like the PTA and other social advocacy groups are more than willing to provide resources and assist with the presentation of parent seminars.
Davies said the PTA regularly holds seminars similar to the ones described in Eliason's bill and has seen attendance anywhere from two or three people to 200 or 300.
"It has been mixed," she said of public turnout. "That would be based on whether the problem is a current, seen problem."
Davies said the key to getting parents involved is to focus on issues that are relevant and critical to a particular community. She said parents rightly have questions and concerns about suicide as the incidents have become more public and more frequent in recent years. An opportunity to receive information on suicide warning signs and prevention likely would be welcomed by many parents, Davies said.
The bill calls for seminars on substance abuse, Internet safety, bullying and suicide prevention, which Davies said are all relevant topics for families today.
"The focus on that will draw more people to that conference because it is becoming an issue in so many neighborhoods," she said.
But what is relevant today may not be relevant tomorrow, Davies said, and the issues facing large, urban school districts may be different from those in smaller, rural communities. Because of that, she praised the amendment introduced by Eliason that would provide flexibility to school districts in deciding how to best meet the needs of their patrons.
"It’s going to be evolving, and what is critical here in Salt Lake or Jordan School District may be different than a small rural community where another issue may be larger," Davies said.
During his presentation of the bill in the House, Eliason compared the seminars to the parable of the starfish, in which a man is mocked for his minuscule efforts to save starfish that have been washed ashore. If the seminars save one life or help one student, he said, then the program will have been worth the effort.
"At the end of the day, I know it can make a difference," Eliason told the Senate Education Committee prior to its vote Thursday.
Davies agreed with that sentiment. At very least, the seminars will help raise awareness on the critical issues facing students, she said, and those parents who do participate will be better prepared to help their children or other families in their communities.
"When you're in the middle of a crisis, you need any help you can get," Davies said. "It will make a difference for those who come, whether the problem is in their home or they can help a neighbor."
Peterson agreed that the bill would contribute to more conversation on the issues facing children. Even if parents do not attend the seminars, the fact that their child's school is hosting a discussion on Internet safety, bullying or suicide could lead to a conversation being generated between parent and student, she said.
The bill allows districts to opt out of the seminars, though that would require local education officials to examine what policies they have in place and what is being done to provide assistance to students and families.