BY KAREN OCAMB | “As educators, our most important duty is the protection of the children in our care,” says Tom Torlakson, California Superintendent of Public Instruction, at the top of the Department of Education’s webpage on Child Abuse Prevention. The state mandates that local educational agencies and officials—teachers, administrators and other school officials—must report suspected child abuse and neglect, a requirement for which they receive training, resources and technical assistance to recognize and respond to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
The California Department of Education (CDE) provides an online “Educators Training Module” explaining the legal responsibilities of mandated reporting and suggests behavioral red flags such as anxiety, depression, self-mutilation, and “suicidal gestures/attempts.” But attempts to legislate similar resources specifically for suicide prevention in the state’s school districts have failed when a funding request has been attached, despite the fact that teachers and administrators want the training and resources.
But with the lives and protection of LGBT and at risk youth at stake, Equality California, working with The Trevor Project and former teacher Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell of Long Beach, crafted AB 2246, “Suicide Prevention Policies in Schools,” a bill that requires the adoption of comprehensive suicide prevention plans by local California school districts for students attending grades 7-12. The bill passed the Legislature and is now on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto what could be a significant tool in youth suicide prevention.
Timing is everything. Sept. 5 is the start of National Suicide Prevention Week.
The LGBT community has a long history of struggling with suicide, a result of internalized shame and stigmatized homophobic abuse for being lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. In 2010, after a series of gay teen suicides, columnist Dan Savage and his husband Terry Miller created a YouTube video sharing their terrible experiences in high school, a video that not only went viral but produced the renowned It Gets Better Project.
But last month, the Centers for Disease Control went beyond anecdotal personal stories, releasing the first national study of LGB high school students. The CDC noted that suicide is the second-leading cause of death among all young people aged 10-24, with approximately 17 percent of students in grades 9-12 having seriously considered suicide, and eight percent report having actually attempted suicide one or more times in the past 12 months. More specifically, the CDC found that “more than 40 percent of LGB students have seriously considered suicide, and 29 percent reported having attempted suicide during the past 12 months.” The students also “reported experiencing substantially higher levels of physical and sexual violence and bullying than other [heterosexual] students.”
A Fenway Institute study published by Harvard last year indicates that transgender and gender non-conforming youth “have an elevated risk of being diagnosed with depression (50.6 percent vs. 20.6 percent for their non-trans peers); suffer from anxiety (26.7 percent vs. 10 percent); had attempted suicide (17.2 percent vs. 6.1 percent); and had engaged in self-harming activities without lethal intent (16.7 percent vs. 4.4 percent).”
“I found the numbers heartbreaking,” the CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin told the New York Times.
“Nations are judged by the health and well-being of their children. Many would find these levels of physical and sexual violence unacceptable and something we should act on quickly.”
The power behind AB 2246 lies in its requirement to create or adopt a policy to serve as a guideline for how districts and local schools deal with the sometimes unapparent turmoil that precedes an attempted suicide in youth who may be homeless or acting out through substance abuse or depressed over constant bullying or anti-LGBT discrimination. This will most likely entail a willingness to embrace cultural competency and a shift in thinking—similar to the shift in thinking that occurred in response to child abuse, which was once thought to be a “private” family matter rather than a public health and greater moral responsibility.
And there’s no excuse that a district doesn’t have the money to enforce what critics decry as an unfunded mandate. The bill requires CDE to create a model policy—and one already exists, created by experts The Trevor Project, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the American School Counselor Association and the National Association of School Psychologists. The 16-page “Model School District Policy on Suicide Prevention: Model Language, Commentary, and Resources,” describes risk factors, protective factors, prevention, best practices, referrals and more.
Additionally, the school districts can develop their own policies, based on the guidelines provided by the CDE, and determine how best to train teachers and counselors on suicide prevention and intervention–training called for by AB 2246 supporters — the enlightened California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers.
“As classroom teacher, I know from experience that educators often serve as the first line of defense when a student is suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts,” said bill author O’Donnell, Chair of the Assembly Education Committee, after the bill passed its final legislative hurdle on Tuesday, Aug. 30. “AB 2246 will provide parents, teachers and schools with the tools they need to help save the lives of at-risk youth.”
“In spite of the sobering statistics on youth suicide, California lags behind many other states in requiring school districts to have suicide prevention policies in place,” said Rick Zbur, executive director of bill co-sponsor Equality California. “With LGBT youth up to four times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their non-LGBT peers, AB 2246 will save young LGBT lives.”
“We’re thrilled that California can become the first state in the country to require middle and high school policies on suicide prevention for LGBTQ and other at-risk populations,” said Abbe Land, executive director of The Trevor Project. “Just a couple of weeks ago, the first nationally representative sample of the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey was released, and it showed that lesbian, bisexual and questioning youth attempt suicide at over three times the rate of heterosexual youth. With the passage of AB 2246, California has answered this implicit call to action to drive these shocking statistics down. We owe a great debt of gratitude for Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell for spearheading this bill and we look forward to the governor’s signature.”
Equality California Legislative Manager Jo Michael sees another benefit to AB 2246, in addition to saving the lives of at risk youth and soothing the sleepless nights of compassionate teachers.
Once signed into law, AB 2246 must be enforced or implemented at a local level. And that, says Michael, provides an opportunity for local LGBT groups or concerned individuals to participate in the creation and implementation of the policy. Or they can serve as watch-dogs and if the district or local school does not enforce or comply with its own policy, the concerned citizen or group has a right to complain.
“This creates an opportunity for other, unofficial groups that are trying to support a student at high risk for suicide,” says Michael, “to make sure the school adopts a suicide prevention policy in a timely fashion and then abides by them.”
After a 2013 California State Audit of the School Safety and Nondiscrimination Laws showed that most local education agencies do not evaluate the effectiveness of their programs—thus allowing for the continuation of anti-LGBT discrimination—and advised that the state “should exercise stronger leadership,” Equality California decided to develop a program that holds agencies accountable.
Robbie Rodriguez, Program Director for Equality California’s Health, Education and Immigration Programs, says EQCA is working with teachers’ associations, Superintendent of Public Instruction Torlakson, and Zbur’s old law firm, Latham & Watkins LLP, to create a Safe and Supportive Schools Equality Index, modeled on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. Latham and Watkins is working pro bono to help Equality California develop a California-centric metric to measure school districts’ efforts to create safe school environments that promote LGBT acceptance. Additionally, Equality California will provide LGBT cultural competency trainings for teachers and staff.
“The Safe and Supportive Schools Index is designed to measure the compliance of California schools on their knowledge and implementation of existing anti-bullying laws, regulations, and policies,” says Rodriguez. “As of right now, we have research on the state’s anti-bullying laws. Our next step is to have two meetings with education experts and organizations that have school-based programs, to get their insights on what should be included in a survey instrument. With their feedback in mind, we will develop the survey and take it to the various school districts.”
“While California law is quite clear on what’s expected of student safety on campus, districts and individual schools around the state vary widely in how well they protect LGBT students,” says Zbur. “Our Safe Schools Index will give an accurate snapshot of how well a school fulfills its responsibility, and will provide a concrete way of measuring improvement.”
Given the “heartbreaking” LGBT suicide statistics, the AB 2246 requirement to implement LGBT-affirmative local school policies and the pending Index to hold California school districts accountable, this might be a good time for local LGBT leaders, parents and concerned allies to call on Torlakson to go beyond the caring words affixed to the CDE’s Child Abuse page and actively protect the children in his care by implementing and enforcing a new gold standard for a youth suicide prevention policy. Like the parents and teachers who rely on him for guidance, Torlakson, too, can sleep better knowing he’s done his duty and saved the lives of children at risk for suicide and abuse.