CHEYENNE – Partially compelled by testimony from a few Wyoming high school students on their experiences with youth suicide, state lawmakers advanced a bill Tuesday that would require school districts statewide to provide suicide education and prevention training to middle- and high-schoolers.
The proposal advanced by the Joint Education Committee would expand the Jason Flatt Act, which requires teachers to undergo two hours of suicide education and prevention training each year. The act, which has passed in 20 states, was approved in Wyoming in 2014.
But in the six years since then, Wyoming has continued to struggle with its rates of suicide, both in general and in younger populations. From 2016 to 2018, Wyoming had the fourth-highest suicide rate of any state among people between the ages of 10 and 24, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Given the state’s ongoing struggle to reduce its suicide rates, several who spoke to the committee insisted that something must be done.
The push to provide prevention training to all sixth through 12th grade students has largely been led by Cody High School psychologist Daniel Cossaboon, who told lawmakers that adolescents tell their friends 80% of the time before they actually engage in self-harm.
“The problem is that sometimes it just stops right there, because the kids haven’t adequately been taught what to do and how to cope with the situation, and how to refer their friends so that we can get that safety plan in place and potentially save their lives,” said Cossaboon.
Lawmakers also heard from three Cody High School students, each of whom had been impacted by suicide. Senior Soffy Anderson, who told lawmakers that her half-sister killed herself more than a year ago, said the state addressing the issue would let struggling students know “that they are seen and that they can be helped.”
“I would’ve appreciated having training and being able to see the signs when they were happening, because maybe the outcome could’ve been different, so I am personally asking you to make training mandatory for all students in Wyoming,” Anderson said.
While not currently mandatory, suicide prevention training for older students is provided in some Wyoming school districts, though lawmakers were unsure of the exact number. Regardless, some committee members argued the issue demanded a statewide response.
“We have, time and time again, year in, year out, been among the very worst states – if not the worst state – when it comes to suicide, so doing the same thing again doesn’t seem like it’s the solution to me,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie.
A few lawmakers were more wary of adding another requirement for school districts to follow. Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, questioned whether the legislation was truly necessary for school districts to expand prevention training to students, and he worried about mandating them to do “more with less” amid the state’s severe budget crisis.
But the majority on the committee felt the bill, which also had the support of the Wyoming Psychological Association and the Wyoming chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, should move forward. Rep. Jerry Obermueller, R-Casper, said the testimony from the students in Cody reflected the urgency of the issue.
“Committees need to operate as gatekeepers and not allow everything to move forward, but I think this one, because of the testimony we heard particularly from the kids today ... deserves a hearing from the whole body,” Obermueller said.
With the committee’s 10-4 vote in approval, the bill will be considered during the Legislature’s general session early next year.