Parents of Kansas children who committed suicide urged the Senate Education Committee to support a bill that would require suicide prevention training for Kansas teachers and school staff.
The bill — also known as the Jason Flatt Act — would require all licensed teachers and principals to complete two hours of suicide prevention training each year.
Supporters of the bill note that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, and one that’s often not talked about.
The bill, which the Jason Flatt Foundation has helped pass in various forms in 16 states, has support in Kansas from mental health professionals, Kansas National Education Association and parents. It also drew neutral but supportive testimony Tuesday at the Statehouse from some education organizations.
Parents who had lost a child to suicide gave impassioned pleas for a solution, saying they wish someone had been there to help their children.
They told the stories of their children — athletic, fun-loving, seemingly happy, loved — who took their own lives. If teachers and other school staff who spent nearly 40 hours a week with their children were better equipped to see the signs of suicide, their children might still be with them, they said.
Betty Brennan, who lost her son Kyler Jones to suicide in 2014, said she, the school and the community were left with questions after his death.
“How did we miss it? What could we have done? Where did we go wrong? What could we do to prevent this from happening again? And how do we help our student body cope, heal and move on?” Brennan recalled asking after her son’s death.
She said the silence surrounding suicide is part of the problem.
“We teach our youth about alcohol and drug use — the way it affects our body and our brain,” she said. “We teach them they will not be successful, they will lose family and friends due to addiction. We preach this to our youth, but we don’t educate them on what to do when life gets overwhelming and they feel hopeless.”
Cathy Housh lost her daughter Cady in November 2014, two days after Cady’s friend Ciara Webb also took her own life.
“If that were a virus, if that were some sort of disease, you can bet there’d be a task force all over the country trying to figure out what we can do to stop this and to fight it and to give us the resources so we can save our children,” Housh said.
Headquarters Inc., a nonprofit based in Lawrence, operates the Kansas Youth Suicide resource center, which will run out of funding at the end of January.
Andy Brown, executive director of Headquarters, told the committee that the training given to communities through the resource center can’t stand on its own after the program ends. The Jason Flatt Act, Brown said, would build on that legacy.
“While school districts and their employees are the target for this suicide prevention bill, we are not asking them to carry sole responsibility for suicide prevention in their communities,” he said. “Suicide is a public health issue, and suicide prevention requires a community effort.”
The Kansas National Education Association also favored the bill, saying it wasn’t an unfunded mandate.
Others stood neutral. G.A. Buie, executive director of United School Administrators of Kansas — or USA Kansas — said work regarding suicide prevention already occurs in school districts.
He said he would support the State Board of Education working with districts on training and protocols, but he said decisions regarding programming, length of training and source should be left to school districts.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt also provided neutral testimony. According to his written testimony, his office developed a proposal that would allow the Legislature to request that the State Board of Education incorporate parts of the act into training requirements without passing a law mandating it.
Scott Gordon, general counsel for the Kansas Department of Education, said in neutral testimony that rather than requiring all certified teachers to have the training, districts should ensure that all school employees are trained and have a crisis plan.
Suicide prevention would be added to the 11-step accreditation process for schools, he said. But the department prefers that the changes in the act be made through regulation rather than legislation.