SALT LAKE CITY — Karen Peterson's 13-year-old son, Buddy, was bullied at school — "terrorized," in her words —' on a near-daily basis by a group of male classmates.
Buddy's teacher, made aware of the problem by his friends, removed Buddy from the classroom at Alianza Academy to spend part of the day alone in the front office, isolated from his friends and support system.
But Peterson and her husband didn't learn of the full extent of the bullying, or the steps taken by educators at the Magna charter school, until after Buddy's death as a result of suicide on Jan. 13.
"Her way of taking care of the bullying was to pull my son out of the classroom instead of letting us know there was a problem," Peterson said of her son's teacher.
On Thursday, speaking before the House Education Committee in support of HB134, an emotional Peterson said that if educators had informed her and her husband about what was happening at school with their son, it might have been Buddy, and not his parents, testifying before lawmakers on the merits of proposed anti-bullying and suicide prevention legislation.
"I believe that if we had been notified and if we knew what was going on with my son, we could have saved him," she said. "My son can never speak for himself again. We have to be his voice."
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gage Froerer, R-Huntsville, would require schools to notify parents if a student expresses a suicidal threat or is involved in an incident of bullying, cyber-bullying, harassment, hazing or retaliation.
Froerer said many school districts already make a practice of informing parents, but stories like the Peterson family's illustrate how parents can be left out of the loop, leading to potentially tragic consequences.
"I've been told that a number do," he said. "I've also been told that a number don't. We want to make sure this is done."
The bill is effectively identical to a Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City. Robles' SB184 was unanimously advanced during its committee hearing in the Senate with very little discussion. Froerer's bill, however, was held in committee on a 7-6 vote after nearly an hour of debate during which several lawmakers questioned whether the bill was within the Legislature's constitutional powers and whether the bill adequately addressed those who bully as well as those who are bullied.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, who frequently raises the question of constitutionality in committee hearings, said the general control and direction of the public school system is vested with the State School Board, which would include policy on when schools should contact parents.
"Our Constitution is an inconvenient thing, but it stands," Nielson said. "We simply do not have this authority."
Lawmakers also questioned a provision in the bill that would require school districts to obtain a signed statement from parents acknowledging they've been informed of a incident at school.
Rep. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, said the requirement could have a chilling effect on school districts and suggested that the bill could conflict with anti-bullying and suicide prevention efforts already being made at the local level.
"Perhaps there are better local ways of dealing with some of these things," McCay said, "and we may be ignoring or superseding some of those things that may be working in those school districts."
Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, who has also sponsored anti-bullying and suicide prevention legislation this session, countered that local school districts are clearly not doing enough to address the problem, as the rate of youth suicide in Utah is among the highest in the nation and currently stands as the second-leading cause of teen death.
"I think it's past time that we put the lives and welfare of our children ahead of politics, ideology and turf wars," Eliason said.
Froerer said he has spoken to the chairman of the House Education Committee and expects his bill to come back up for consideration Monday. The bill will likely include some minor changes in response to the feedback and concerns he received from committee members.
"I think with the amendments you'll see on Monday, we'll be able to address a lot of those issues," he said.
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