On the first day of spring, they came to the Rhode Island Statehouse. Many were students from Portsmouth High School who formed the suicide prevention group Every Student Initiative.
They were there to support a bill before the House Committee of Health, Education and Welfare. The bill was called The Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act.
Bruno, 15, a Portsmouth High School sophomore, died on Feb. 7, 2018. Flatt died on July 16, 1997, at age 16 in Nashville, Tennessee.
The proposed legislation that bears their names would establish mandatory youth suicide awareness and prevention training for all public school staff in the state. Several students testified before the committee as did Rick Bruno, Nathan’s father, urging lawmakers to pass the bill to address the silent epidemic of youth suicide.
Behind the scenes, however, there were concerns over the language in the bill, which the committee ordered held for further study. All bills are automatically designated this status after a first hearing. A second hearing and vote on a bill can’t happen until it is moved out of committee.
“Nobody really wanted to oppose it publicly,” said Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Portsmouth) the House sponsor of the bill.
Jason Flatt Act Passed in 20 States
Twenty states have passed the Jason Flatt Act, which established mandatory youth suicide awareness and prevention training for educators.
New Hampshire appears poised to become the 21st after its House of Representative in February passed legislation requiring schools to carry out two hours a year of suicide prevention training for teachers, supervisors, and administrators.
Individual schools could determine the type of training. The New Hampshire Senate was preparing to act on it in mid-May.
Every Student Initiative wants to expand the Jason Flatt Act to add language requiring schools to contact parents or legal guardians as soon as there is an issue with their child. However, the proposal does not clarify what kind of issue.
The Rhode Island bill also includes a provision that whenever a conflict arises between a student and a teacher or other school staff member, the student or a parent or guardian can file a complaint against the teacher or the hired or contracted employee of the school.
Another provision would rename guidance counselors with the title of academic advisor to clarify for students which staff to go to for help during times of emotional distress.
Language in Bill Causes Concern
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, the National Education Association Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, and the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association are among the groups that have raised concerns about the bill.
Tim Ryan, a former Portsmouth school superintendent and former executive director of the Rhode Island School Superintendents Association, said other policies can address the complaint process when a conflict arises between and student and school staff member.
“I think that language is a little charged,” Ryan said of the bill. “It’s so specific to the Nathan Bruno case that it might lose sight of the bigger issues.”
Ryan said he supported the bill’s requirement for mandatory suicide training for all school staff and was hopeful it would become law in the future. “Some version of the bill definitely will pass and I think it’s needed,” Ryan said.
After Nathan Bruno’s death, the Portsmouth School Committee commissioned an independent investigation to determine what happened after the school’s football coach had received multiple harassing text messages and phone calls traced to Nathan’s phone.
Nathan had been a former football player. A summary of the investigation report released publicly revealed the coach had called a team meeting on Feb. 6, 2018, and threatened to resign unless the team identified two other students who were believed to be behind the alleged harassment with Nathan.
The next day, Nathan was found dead at his home.
“It’s my belief that my son died in despair and hopelessness over a situation that could have and should have been handled differently by school staff,” Rick Bruno told the House committee during his testimony on March 20.
Bruno said he was only notified a week before his son’s death that an issue with the coach, school administration, and local police had been going on outside of school for a month.
“Without my knowledge or involvement, the school held a meeting with Nathan, meetings about Nathan and made educational decisions including a schedule change,” Bruno testified.
“As a result of staff holding meetings with and about Nathan at school, he was ostracized and bullied by his peers without any safety net being implemented to protect his socio-emotional well-being.”
Over the past decade, 5,000 school staff at public and private schools in the state have participated in suicide prevention training, said Jeffrey Hill, MS, manager of the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Violence and injury Prevention Program.
“It really depends on what the district is using for professional development time and how much time is available and what type of training is going to be done,” Hill said.
The only school employees mandated to participate in such training under current Rhode Island law are high school health educators.
Time is Running Out
Cortvriend said she and the bill’s Senate sponsors, Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Newport) and Sen. James Seven (D-Portsmouth), were working with the student advocates to revise the bill’s language. But she noted that time may be running out this session.
“If it doesn’t pass I will resubmit it again next year,” Cortvriend said. “Sometimes these bills take more than one year to get through.”
Steven Petersen, MSW, the executive director of Every Student Initiative, said the student advocacy group has drafted a series of revisions but is unwilling to omit the provision about parental notification because it is an integral part of the bill.
“That’s one thing that didn’t happen with Nathan’s situation and I strongly believe that if it did, Nathan would still be here today,” Peterson said.
“Kids aren’t the best advocates for themselves so we need to ensure that the people that are looking out for their best interest are involved in these situations.”