By Tom Coulter
Wyoming Tribune Eagle
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
CHEYENNE — The Wyoming House of Representatives rejected legislation Wednesday that would have required the state’s K-12 public schools to provide suicide prevention training programs to students.
House Bill 62, which was advanced by an interim committee late last year with the backing of several high school students who testified, would have expanded the Jason Flatt Act, which requires teachers to undergo two hours of suicide education and prevention training each year, to also provide age-appropriate suicide prevention programs to students.
The bill’s proponents were supportive of it largely as a way to address Wyoming’s growing youth suicide rates. Despite passage of the Jason Flatt Act in 2014, Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, told his colleagues that Wyoming saw a 42% increase in adolescent suicides from 2016 to 2019. Additionally, in 2018, Wyoming had the highest suicide rate in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Do I know that this is the right bill at the right time? I don’t know,” Sommers said. “I just know that an effort probably needs to be made, and maybe it’s a societal effort that has nothing to do with this bill, but I think this is a good attempt.”
Other members of the House, however, questioned whether the bill was necessary at all. Rep. Art Washut, R-Casper, said he didn’t like the tone of the bill, arguing “it sounds like we’re telling people across the state that their superintendents and school boards aren’t smart enough to recognize what an issue suicide is.”
“I think all of those people, those elected school boards in their communities and their superintendents, are fully aware of how serious the issue of suicide is in our state, and they don’t need a bill from the Wyoming State Legislature telling them, ‘By gosh, you’re going to do it,’” Washut said. “They can do it already, if they wish.”
Others mentioned the need for faith-based services to be offered to students struggling with suicidal thoughts. Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, who mentioned his own experiences losing his son to suicide, argued “we’ve created a situation where people do not look in the right place for the answers to this.”
“Until we’re prepared to change the way we teach children and the way we’ve pushed our faith out of the schools, we cannot hold these schools to account for dealing with this particular issue,” Bear said. “And the opportunity cost … is the fact that as we try to teach this issue and try to address this issue, there are many people out there that will say, ‘Well, the schools are handling it. The state’s got it under control. I’m not going to address this with my children, or I’m not going to get my children over to a person of faith that has an answer that can give them hope.’”
Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, who opposed the proposal, argued the state already has several unfunded mandates in place for its K-12 education system, and he questioned whether the education system was the best place to address issues involving suicide.
“At what point do we stop putting the burden of societal issues on our K-12 education system and start relying on the responsibility of our homes and our neighbors, and stop looking to government to the answer?” Brown said during floor debate.
During recent committee meetings, the proposal had drawn strong support from several Wyoming high schoolers, many of whom spoke of losing their own friends to suicide, a point that House Minority Leader Cathy Connolly, D-Laramie, noted to her colleagues.
“These kids testified that they wished they knew what to do,” Connolly said. “If they knew what to do … they might have saved a life. And honestly, on the committee, we spent some time assuring those children that they were not responsible for the death of their siblings or their friends because they didn’t know what to do. But (we) felt like it’s our obligation to provide for them that information, so that then they could turn to a teacher who has been trained. That’s what this bill is attempting to do.”
Rep. Rachel Rodriguez-Williams, R-Cody, noted that about 80% of the time, when young people contemplate suicide, they tell a friend.
“Our youth need to be equipped with this new skill set,” Rodriguez-Williams said. “The word suicide, it’s always a big elephant in the room, and in Wyoming, it’s actually larger than an elephant. It’s like a woolly mammoth.”
However, the majority of the 60-member body, including Rep. Tim Hallinan, R-Gillette, felt the proposal went in the wrong direction.
“I’m 75 years old, and I don’t remember a single member of my class that committed suicide,” Hallinan said. “I think was a very rare condition back then, so that tells me that this approach that we’re talking about this bill is just a continuation of what’s been going wrong in our society, and for that reason, it causes me to vote no on this bill.”
House Bill 62 ultimately failed by a 25-34 vote, with one lawmaker being excused.