One by one, grieving East Valley mothers displayed photos of their sons who are part of the region’s suicide cluster, pleading with the state Senate’s Education Committee for help.
The visibly moved committee members delivered, voting 7-0 to approve a landmark teen suicide prevention-training bill – a critical step to the legislation advancing, but several stages short of it becoming law.
Sponsored by Sen. Sean Bowie, whose district includes Ahwatukee and parts of Chandler, Mesa and Tempe, the bipartisan SB1468 would require suicide prevention training every three years for all school personnel involved with grades 6-12.
“It’s so hard when something so bad happens,’’ said Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who joined other members in thanking three East Valley mothers for their testimony and offering condolences.
Lorie Warnock, of Tempe, an English teacher in Ahwatukee who lost her son, Mitch, to suicide in 2016 while he attended Corona del Sol High School, said she was “cautiously hopeful’’ when Bowie decided to sponsor a softer version of the bill named in memory of her son.
“I can testify that as a teacher of 25 years, I was not prepared to know what to look for,” she said.
Warnock said it was disappointing last year when Bowie’s first attempt was rejected. That would have mandated training every year but was opposed by the Arizona School Boards Association.
But this year, the association has taken a neutral position in exchange for an amendment approved by the committee that the training be considered a classroom-related expense when school funding is determined by the state.
“I was surprised and delighted that it came up again. Neither myself nor my husband (Tim, also a teacher) expected that,’’ Warnock said. “I was ecstatic that the education committee was so moved by our testimony.’’
In her testimony, Warnock recounted how the Tempe Union High School District trained more than 850 employees, from school bus drivers to teachers and principals, on recognizing the early warning signs of suicide and how to prevent it, with the help of Teen Lifeline.
The district’s actions serve as a model for Bowie’s bill. Warnock said that she and her fellow teachers at Mountain Pointe High School have noticed that more students are willing to report that they are not doing well psychologically, or that they are concerned about a friend.
She said the students appear more confident that teachers know how to handle their concerns appropriately, Warnock said. While mental health is complicated, the response takes about 30 seconds and can be handled in a simple email to a guidance counselor and a social worker.
“The numbers continue to spike. It’s something we can’t ignore,’’ Warnock said. “The schools are the hub of the community. We are all in this together. We are trying to build a safety net of wellness.’’
Warnock was joined in her testimony by Sheila Hedstrom-Pegler of Gilbert, who lost her son Tyler while he attended Combs High School in San Tan Valley, and Angela Gamboa, whose son Jacob attended a Higley high school.
Both brought pictures of their sons, underscoring the tragedy that haunts them to this day.
Tyler died in July 2017 and was the third of 33 East Valley teenagers – mostly boys – who have taken their lives since that month.
Hedstrom-Pelger said that her son was a talented musician who told her that if did not make it as a performer, he wanted to become a music teacher.
She said two female classmates found her son sobbing in a dark supply room nine months before his death and that on a third occasion, they reported it to a teacher.
She said the teacher knew Tyler well and sympathized with him, but he was not trained to recognize the early signs of suicide.
“He sympathized with Tyler’s despair, but he did not escalate this to a counselor and he did not notify me,’’ Hedstrom-Pelger said.
“We did miss the signs of depression, that we now know,’’ Hedstrom-Pegler, a nurse, said. “I don’t blame anyone for my son’s death, but I know it was an opportunity missed.’’
“Our kids deserve this and our parents deserve this,’’ she said. “No parent should have an empty seat at their table and no teacher should have an empty seat in their classroom.’’
Added Gamboa: “It’s imperative that teachers be equipped to identify the students who struggle just to get through the day.’’
She testified that Jacob had told a teacher he was fine when he was not.
“I know her concern was genuine and that she cared for him,’’ Gamboa said. “Maybe, with this important training, the outcome could have been different.’’
East Valley suicide prevention advocates have tracked 33 teen suicides completed in the past 18 months in the East Valley and another five in neighboring communities, including Scottsdale, said Christina Nguyen of Chandler, a member of Project Connect 4, a grassroots youth wellness organization.
“It’s a big confidence booster,’’ Nguyen said, to see the Education Committee pass the bill unanimously. “It wasn’t about Republicans and Democrats. It was about human beings coming together to save our kids.’’
Bowie and Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, set aside their political differences and testified for the bill in a bipartisan show of support. Other members of the delegation representing Ahwatukee, Chandler and Tempe all support the legislation.
“This is the first time I have ever testified on somebody else’s bill,’’ Mesnard said, stressing that teen-suicide prevention should not be a partisan issue because it addresses a social problem that affects everyone.
“They need training so they can look for signs, so they can prevent the next suicide,’’ he said. “I can’t think of anything worse than a young person taking their own life.’’
“Given the nature and the seriousness of this issue, I think this is the right policy,’’ Mesnard said.
Bowie cautioned that there are many steps ahead before the suicide prevention training bill becomes law. He expects a vote by the full Senate possibly by the end of this week.
“I think we’ve got a good shot,’’ Bowie said. “It’s a necessary step, and I am glad we got it done.’’