I already did a blog about teen suicide. But something happened today to entice me to do a ‘follow-up’. A little background here. Arizona, my home state, leads the nation in suicides of children between the ages of 10 to 14 years old. The state also ranks 13th in the nation in teen suicides between the ages of 15 to 17 years old. Since 2009, teen suicides have increased a whopping 81 percent in the state. According to the latest available statistics, 50 Valley teens took their lives in 2017, a 32 percent increase from the year before. This is not to show bias towards Arizona in this blog as other states are combatting this problem, but I am getting to the point of this blog.
One of these young people who unfortunately took his life was Mitch Warnock. His parents are both educators. After their son committed suicide in 2017, the Warnock’s pushed for legislation that became reality today in Arizona. Signed by Governor Doug Ducey, the Mitch Warnock Act’s purpose is “expanding suicide awareness and prevention training in public schools”. He added that he believes the new law will save lives.
I have blogged before that putting more on to the responsibilities of educators and support staff is leading to a mass exodus of the education industry in addition to the poor salaries and hours worked – basically burnout. According to the Phoenix Business Journal, Arizona has one of the largest pay gaps with the starting rate for teachers of $34,473 falling 30.1% lower than the average salary in the state, which is $49,290. The state ranks 47th in the nation for teacher pay. What this leads to is nearly 50 percent of new teachers leaving the profession within their first five years.
Please do not misunderstand that I am against teachers and support staff (custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and office staff) getting mandatory training on how to spot a student who is troubled and might be in distress that could lead to suicide. The Warnock’s see this as not being a problem adding this to teachers’ plates. They are in the profession so I will not debate the parent’s who have suffered such a great loss.
I will say that there are no other options but an all-hands on deck approach in Arizona and many other states. Arizona is last in counselor to student ratio at one counselor for every 905 students. Many classrooms in the state have a long-term substitute teacher because they cannot fill the many vacancies. Will these substitutes also be paid extra on top of their daily pay to attend this training? I looked at the legislation and did not find that provision.
The law mandates that by 2020, all schools will have training that will include identifying the warning signs of suicidal behavior and implementing intervention and referral techniques.
When I think about this, the first thing that comes into my mind is how teachers are mandated to watch for signs of child abuse. If they observe a student who may be in this situation, an immediate counselor and school nurse examination is required. Warning signs are bruises or welts, the students display shy, withdrawn or aggressive behavior and are afraid.
The new teen suicide law requires training at least once every three years. Furthermore, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) will also be required to make suicide awareness and prevention training available and post the information on their website. I noticed that all the professional development training that is mandated comes out of classroom spending. With so many needs in our classrooms, I wish it did not have to come out of that bucket. I did like the provision that school personnel may not be held civilly liable for a student suicide unless they are negligent, willfully or intentionally committed wrongdoing.
The law does not specifically state what signs school staff need to watch for, only that the training will be ‘evidence based’ to identify warning signs of suicide in adolescents and teens. There is also a referral process that I am sure is like the referrals for possible child abuse. I know you are loving reading all this legal jargon, but if you are in any way involved in education – from parent to teacher to school workers – this type of law is coming to your state very soon if not already on the books.
Now teachers may have to be required to be certified in mental health. They already must compose lesson plans and ensure students are succeeding in the classroom, attend staff and grade level meetings – not to mention professional development required for re-certification hours to maintain their license and now take mandatory teen suicide training. They are required to teach and provide a safe, secure and engaging learning environment, pass teaching observations done three to four times a year to stay employed. Add to that they now must be knowingly be aware of mental health issues like anxiety, stress, depression and anger which could lead to a potential suicide. With such low pay, many school personnel must take additional employment to pay the bills and things like childcare.
Again, I am not saying this is a bad bill. I am stating in my opinion teachers are so overloaded right now and taking on so many roles aside from educating our children. Consider about only half of Arizona third graders passed the state reading and math tests. Furthermore, only 37 percent of eight passed the state reading test and 32 percent passed the math test. These numbers are considerably worse in other states.
Education is facing a crisis on multiple fronts. Minorities are the most affected. An example comes from New York City where 34 percent of black students and 36 percent of Hispanic students showed proficiency on the English exam. In addition, just 25.4 percent of black students achieving proficiency on the math exam. New York is now requiring the state’s schools to teach students about mental health from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade. This is composed of almost 100 learning objectives for students of all ages. Lesson plans and resources can be accessed by teachers online. So, with so many students in distress with a dismal future in front of them, how the heck is this going to help when they cannot read or do math?
I have said it before. School personnel are outnumbered and fighting a battle to simply educate in overcrowded classrooms with overburdened teachers. Yes, look out for a child in distress and talk to them. Do you damned best to be a friend, a guide, a role model, whatever the heck it takes to show children you truly care for them and want them to succeed. A teacher’s priority is to ensure students are ready for the world when they become adults. Now they have multiple roles and hopefully do not just throw their arms up in frustration.
Hopefully, someone is there for the next Mitch Waynock and makes a difference.