Rick Bowmer, Associated Press
FILE - Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, speaks during the Utah Taxpayers Association 2018 Legislative Outlook Conference, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would authorize the Utah State Board of Education to award matching grants to increase the number of school counselors in Utah elementary schools was unanimously approved Monday by the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who is the Senate co-sponsor of HB264, said he used to be of the mindset that special programs weren't needed in schools, that struggling children "can buck up and they can survive and do well without any kind of special supports."

He now understands that many children experience "toxic stress," which places them at a tremendous disadvantage from their peers, he said.

Had he had the benefit of school counselor while in elementary school, he might not have struggled as much when his parents divorced. His mother returned to college to become a schoolteacher, which meant frequent moves and in one year, enrolling in three elementary schools.

"I was suffering from such depression," Stephenson said.

"I'd go home after lunch and just cry because I was so sad. I didn't see a future of happiness in my life. I actually had thoughts of suicide because I just didn't see a light at the end of the tunnel."

If his teacher had been able to turn to someone with professional training as a school counselor to help him, his childhood likely would not have been as difficult, he said.

Supporters of HB264 said Stephenson's childhood experiences are not uncommon and schoolteachers and administrators are stretched too thin to give children the support they need on top of their other responsibilities.

Terry Shoemaker, representing the Utah School Boards Association and the Utah School Superintendents Association, said the need for elementary school counselors is acute.

"This can and should be an ongoing priority," Shoemaker said.

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The bill creates a pilot program and seeks $2.25 million for the inaugural year of the program, which would provide matching funds to schools and pay to create an educator training program on the impacts of trauma on student learning.

"This is doing the right thing, at the right time, and the right place," he said.

Linda Hansen, a member of the Utah State Board of Education, urged the committee to support HB264.

"This is a desperate, desperate need. It's been a Utah State Board of Education priority for the past three years," she said.

HB264, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, passed the House of Representatives on a vote 59-11. It moves to the Senate for further consideration.