HARRISBURG — The state House overwhelmingly passed a measure to mandate suicide-prevention training for some public school teachers.
A bill cosponsored by several area representatives — including Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township, Karen Boback, R-Harveys Lake, and Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-Taylor — was passed 194-3 on Tuesday. It calls for all sixth- through 12th-grade teachers in the state to receive four hours of Department of Education-approved suicide awareness and prevention training every five years.
The training would be part of professional continuing-education requirements.
While student suicide — and by extension, bullying — have been hot-button issues statewide in recent years, locally the matter has been at the forefront.
Last year around this time, the region was reeling after two Pittston Area School District teens and one from Hazleton Area took their own lives separately during a one-week span. They were the third, fourth and fifth teen suicides of the year in Luzerne County.
And while most had been credited, at least in part, to bullying, those claims were never completely founded.
“We must do everything possible to prevent a recurrence of last September’s tragedy, when four Luzerne County teens took their lives in a week,” Mullery said. “Making teachers aware of the warning signs of suicide can help save lives.”
District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis got involved, schools brought in grief counselors and others to talk about the issue, and candle light vigils were held in several communities. Just this year, Salavantis kept the issue of bullying front and center by bringing in anti-bullying speaker John Halligan to 14 area high schools and West Side Career and Technology Center this month, as well as seven presentations geared for parents.
But the House bill focuses on ensuring that teachers who interact with students are aware of the warning signs of suicide and protocols for how to prevent them.
Salavantis on Wednesday thanked the House for taking up and approving the bill and said oftentimes teachers are poised to notice signs or changes in students’ behavior that could raise a red flag. She said four hours of additional training is a small amount of time compared to the lifelong pain caused by a suicide.
Dave McLaughlin-Smith, the superintendent of the Crestwood School District, said the bill’s requirements “(sound) like a reasonable request.”
“Cursory training in any health/safety/welfare issue is never a bad thing. With that said, initial identification/recognition training of the warning signs for all staff members might save lives, but increasing the knowledge base/skills set of our guidance counseling staff could be valuable ten-fold,” McLaughlin-Smith said in an email.
Boback, who has experience as a legislator and a public school employee, has a unique perspective.
“As a mother and a former teacher, I feel that a school should be a safe haven for students. I co-sponsored this legislation because, if passed, it would provide extra training that would enable teachers to recognize the signals of a student at risk of suicide,” Boback said.
The bill goes to the state Senate for consideration.
State Sen. John Yudichak, D-Plymouth Township, said the bipartisan nature of the bill should help it receive quick consideration and said he will support it because any additional steps put in place to help prevent suicide is a worthwhile effort.
“When you recognize that 90 percent of these suicides could be prevented if the proper training was in place and the warning signs were recognized,” Yudichak said, “this helps the school districts, helps the teachers and most importantly it helps the students.”
If it becomes law, it would take effect during the 2014-15 school year.