As the Legislature underdelivers on the Blue Ribbon panel’s promise to pay all South Dakota teachers what they are worth, the Legislature also adds a new unfunded mandate and extra work for K-12 educators. Senate Bill 129 will require all South Dakota teachers to undergo one hour of suicide awareness and prevention training in order to obtain and keep their teaching certificates. SB 129 is driven by The Jason Foundation from Tennessee, which is foundation president Clark Flatt’s effort to memorialize his son Jason, who committed suicide in 1997 at the age of 16.
No one gets points for opposing Mr. Flatt’s effort to prevent kids from making the same mistake his son did. And I am keenly aware that teen suicide is a serious problem among South Dakota’s youth.
But enshrining suicide prevention in teacher certification requirements seems to confuse the state’s priorities. Teachers are required to jump through a variety of hoops to gain certification in South Dakota. Initial certification requires passing a battery of classes and tests; renewal requires keeping one’s nose clean and taking six college credits. Those hoops do not include training to deal with any other specific risk factor for teenagers, like alcohol and drug use, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, unsafe driving, or workplace exploitation. If we tack teen suicide onto our teacher certification requirements, we invite every other teen advocacy group to push for similar laws that will turn their good intentions into an endless bureaucratic checklist of social concerns about which teachers are expected to read (with, as is the case in SB 129, no funding from the Legislature for time or materials, a point The Jason Foundation emphasizes in its pitch for its legislation).
By the way, if we’re dealing with teen suicide, why are we requiring kindergarten teachers to undergo this training to get their certificates?
For its professed passion for preventing teen suicide, SB 129 seems remarkably toothless. It says teachers can fulfill the requirement by “self-review” of state-approved suicide prevention materials. Translation: read some pamphlets or some-such documents, then check a box on your application saying yup, you read ’em. SB 129 further emphasizes that undergoing this “training” imposes no “specific duty of care,” meaning teachers aren’t expected to do anything with this training. SB 129 also forbids any lawsuits over acts or omissions related to this training. In other words, SB 129 isn’t expecting any changes in practice or outcomes. It isn’t holding anyone accountable for anything that happens. It’s just making teachers check a box.
Voting for this bill probably felt good (I’m hearing Rep. Haugaard’s comments about misplaced compassion), but SB 129 is another example of a Legislative “solution” that won’t work nearly as well as conscientious action at the local level. Local principals and teachers are always looking for good topics for their in-service programs. Present them with evidence and good training materials, and they’ll include suicide awareness and prevention in their in-services. These organized professional development activities will have more accountability and ensure greater discussion and awareness than teachers reading articles from a state board in their spare time.
Of course, neither SB 129’s checkbox nor concerted collaborative professional development address the factors that may drive teenagers to kill themselves. Mental illness, abusive home situations, family and financial instability, bullying, communities that are hostile to difference and diversity—reading SB 129’s pamphlets may help me recognize kids who may be on the edge of giving up their struggle with those big problems, but what has the Legislature done this Session to get rid those big problems so those kids don’t have to struggle so much in the first place?
Teen suicide is a serious problem. Adding teen suicide awareness and prevention training to teacher certification requirements is a misplaced and insufficient response to that problem.