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SB 129: Suicide Prevention Training Requirement for Teacher Certification Misguided

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.


  1. Troy 2016-03-09 11:29


    I think you are under-estimating the value of just checking the box. It is extremely common for people in various trades (welders to keep certification or the company to maintain ISO compliance/certification) or professions (accountants with regard to IRS guidelines) to periodically review something and check the box.

    Admittedly, I’m sure in all cases some won’t read it and go right to the end to check the box. But, I know very few such people. Most give it at least enough attention to be familiar with it and know where to go if they are presented with something that might be applicable.

    Good teachers display and utilize psychological skills whether to motivate or discipline students depending on the situation. Combined with these skills, they are also unique to the degree they see the same people day-in and day-out giving them the ability to discern if something is a one-off or part of a more serious pattern.

    My point: Teachers are both uniquely skilled and in a daily position to help identify behaviors and situations that could prevent grave harm. Both giving them the information and asking them to check a box seems to be a minor request in this societal battle against suicide.

  2. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-09 16:02

    Troy, if checking that box solves or ameliorates the problem, great.

    But there’s my thing: if it’s a minor request, why are we placing it in the teacher certification process, where we make no such other request? Alternatively, if this request warrants this attention, why have we not added numerous similar requests to the teacher certification application?

  3. Darin Larson 2016-03-09 17:58

    Cory, I’m going to part ways with you on this issue. I could live with this being promulgated in regulations from the department of Ed. or other ways short of passing a law, but frankly this issue is important enough it warrants the law. I don’t think the fact that we lack other training in drugs/alcohol etc. means we shouldn’t have teacher training for suicide prevention.

    This issue hits close to home for me and teachers are on the front lines on this issue. One hour is a small price to pay if it is wasted time for some people. For other people, it might mean the difference between life and death.

  4. 1254 2016-03-09 19:06

    Have schools provide training during teacher in service. Yes it is important for all teachers. Sometimes students help kindergarten or grade school teachers. If a teacher is unwilling to learn more about how to address child suicide, they are in the wrong career. Don’t make’ Work’ out of it

  5. Troy 2016-03-09 19:30


    I don’t think it is minor. I think this is a significant matter. When I was a CCD teacher, I was required to annually go thru an online program with regard to “safe environments.” When I first heard about it I had the same reaction as you. What good will this do and it sounds a lot like CYA?

    While it only took an hour and I could do it while sitting on my couch while my wife read a book, I learned a lot with regard to how to identify signals of the various forms of child abuse, the steps to take if I had a suspicion (most importantly who to tell), and it gave me the comfort that it wasn’t my job to make a determination or make a judgment as the process would get the matter into the hands of a professional.

    I don’t know the details of the bill but every school in our state has guidance counselors and I suspect this might be who the teacher tells. These counselors then are well-prepared to take the next steps. All this bill does is create a mechanism for the teacher to know what to look for and to recognize the markers when the teacher sees it. When I heard the debate and discussion, the first thing that came to mind is this is exactly how the trades and other professionals keep up-to-date and their certification in place. Ask any Master Welder (not sure they use that term today) how many times a year such an update is asked to be done.

    Like friends and family, any teacher who loses a student to suicide will ask themselves millions of times “what could I have done.” If this is done right, God forbid, if a teacher faces this they will be armed with knowledge they did what they could have done. That in and of itself justifies the program. All suicides can’t be prevented but some can with timely intervention.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-09 20:22

    Darin, I won’t view it as “paying a price” (although, in another sense of the word, if the Legislature is requiring it, the Legislature should pay the bill). But strictly as a policy issue, does this matter’s qualification as worth a law also mean we need to add other equally important items to the teacher certification process? Is the teacher certification process the right place to apply the good intentions of this law?

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2016-03-09 20:24

    Ah, Troy, I’ve had some similar trainings at the behest of my employing districts. I recall various trainings on sexual harassment, bodily fluid clean-up, etc. Should those items—none of them “minor” either—be included on the teacher certification application form?

  8. Jenny 2016-03-09 20:57

    Those other student problems that you mentioned Cory – drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse etc are some of the driving factors of suicide. I would think it would be likely that these issues will be brought up in the one hour suicide class. I can guarantee you that mental illness, especially the signs of depression, will be presented also.

  9. leslie 2016-03-09 21:44

    I agree cory. another example of why mental health is ignored until its too late. prevention. education. not passing the buck to teachers. mental health requires a functioning affordable medical system in the USA, not a profit driven, inflation driven, political philosophy driven, religious philosophy driven, capitalistic business model in many respect similar to the fast track to wealth model of PDL.

  10. Jenny 2016-03-09 21:55

    Cory, your point about requiring training for teen suicide and questioning why kindergarten teachers have to take it? Sadly there has been children as young as seven yrs old take their own life. It is a very very small statistic but it has happened in the country within the last five years.

  11. leslie 2016-03-10 00:34

    the contagion effect is not well understood.

  12. Mark Winegar 2016-03-10 07:50

    Teen suicide is a valid concern but we cannot ignore the greater need to train families in prevention. Parents are in the best position to observe the danger signs. Let’s start there.

  13. Stumcfar 2016-03-10 08:37

    Teachers need to be able to teach, that is their job. They already have to be dieticians, personal trainers, therapists, babysitters etc. It is already getting difficult in rural areas to find certain types of teachers, adding more to their plate will only add to this problem.

  14. Darin Larson 2016-03-10 08:51

    Stumcfar, that’s why we pay teachers the big bucks here in SD! “:)

    Mark, I agree suicide education on the homefront is just as important if not more, but I say let’s move on all fronts.

    Cory, you are letting the perfect be the enemy of the good again, IMO. Let’s do one good thing for suicide prevention. I’ll let advocates for the other issues you mentioned present their case.

  15. Nick Nemec 2016-03-10 09:52

    Does making this seemingly worthwhile education a part of the requirements for certification shift the costs to the individual teacher as opposed to being born by the school districts or State in the form of a day long teacher inservice education program?

  16. mike from iowa 2016-03-10 10:12

    Why not teach abstinence only suicide? Works so well for other endeavors. Still don’t know why red states never adopted my idea of abstinence only driver’s training. Sure enough money saver,that one.

  17. mike from iowa 2016-03-10 10:21

    Prayer is a legally recognized medical treatment in idaho.

  18. Troy 2016-03-10 16:26


    First, I use that quote all the time at work “don’t let the pursuit of perfection stop you from doing good enough.” We never have perfect and whatever we do good today can be built on tomorrow in smaller steps.

    Second, I have a very good friend who lost a child to suicide. In walking with them and reading about it so I can be “smarter” when talking to them is parents are too often the least capable to see the signs because they develop incrementally (can’t see the forest for the trees). In many cases, the people who recognize the “markers” first/best are people with a bit of distance emotionally who can see the “markers” with clearer clinical eyes. For adults, these people are rare because adults have already perfected the skill to hide their “hidden selves.” But young people (usually under 24), they don’t have this skill perfected placing teachers in an ideal place to see the “markers” and stimulate an intervention (I don’t use know if the mental health use this word but as child of an alcoholic, I use it).

  19. Darin Larson 2016-03-10 21:20

    Troy, I have personal experience with the issue and my experience tells me that your second point is correct.

  20. Troy 2016-03-10 22:24

    Darin, it sucks and I’m sorry you have a personal experience. I’m sure that people on this blog listen to your words a lot more than mine and I’m sure you made a difference here. Thanks.

  21. grudznick 2016-03-10 22:39

    Mike, who is from Iowa, knows there are more crazies in Idaho than in Sioux Center.

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