The Ohio House of Representatives voted 85-7 on Wednesday in favor of a bill to address youth suicides and school safety with new mandates for training, instruction and planning.
School districts would be required to establish a threat-assessment team and contract with an anonymous reporting system that operates 24/7 to receive safety tips and report the tip data to state officials. The Ohio Department of Public Safety currently provides a tip-line service for free to all districts.
School districts would also be required to train employees and teach students in sixth through 12th grades social inclusion, violence prevention and how to identify the signs of depression, suicide and self-harm. Districts would be required to designate a student-led group at each school to focus on suicide awareness, violence prevention and social inclusion.
Educators have told the Dayton Daily News they now see emotional issues and a lack of coping skills in students as young as kindergarten. As youth suicide rates hit an at least 18-year high statewide, many school districts in the Miami Valley have already been addressing the issue.
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One example is the Restorative Behavior Sessions elementary program at Northmont City Schools, in which students with behaviorial needs participate in an all-day program with counselors.
“Our kids are coming to school with more trauma from their home,” Helke Elementary Principal Brian Tregoning said. “There’s been a big push to help support these kids.”
Many schools have embraced recommendations to be more proactive, with prevention efforts led by students themselves. The most common program rolling out in schools is Hope Squad. The program teaches students to look out for signs that their classmates might be struggling, know how to start a conversation with them, and how and when to get more help.
“Kids tell kids when they are struggling emotionally,” said Jennifer Wright-Berryman, assistant professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati and lead researcher for Hope Squad. “They’re already talking to their friends about suicide. It’s not a taboo subject among kids anymore.”
The House bill is supported by Sandy Hook Promise, which provides no-cost training programs to schools to prevent violence and suicides.
Mark Barden, a founding member of Sandy Hook Promise whose son Daniel, a first-grader, was murdered in the 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, said 80 percent of school shooters and 70 percent of people who die by suicide tell someone of their plans or give some warning before the event. House Bill 123 will help students know how to identify and help at-risk individuals, he testified.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine is scheduled to unveil details of his 17-point plan to address gun violence on Oct. 7.
Like other states, Ohio has wrestled with how to protect schools against mass shooters, including fortifying schools, arming teachers and hiring police officers.
Ohio has experienced shootings at Chardon High School in 2012, when three were killed; Madison Junior-Senior High School in 2016, when two students were shot; and West Liberty-Salem High School in 2017, when one student was wounded.
Death by suicide is far more common than mass shootings. Ohio Department of Health data show there have been 19,521 suicide deaths in Ohio since 2007, including 224 children under age 14 and 2,458 for Ohioans age 15 to 24.
Suicide deaths have increased 45 percent overall between 2007 and 2018. For under age 25, the suicide rate has increased by 53 percent during that time.
Across the country, six in 10 firearms deaths are suicides.
Staff writer Katie Wedell contributed to this story.