Bill named after Nathan Bruno aimed at preventing suicides faces obstacles
By Laura Damon Daily News staff writer
PORTSMOUTH — Most legislation takes years to pass, Sen. James Seveney, D-Portsmouth, told a group of Portsmouth High School students gathered at St. Barnabas Church earlier this month.
But “this will go somewhere,” Seveney told them. “You will get it done.”
The Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act stalled in its first go-around on the General Assembly floor. The bill — drafted and forwarded by members of Every Student Initiative, a group of mostly Portsmouth High School students who advocate for social-emotional supports for young people — was introduced in the House by Rep. Terri Cortvriend, D-Portsmouth, on Feb. 27 and in the Senate by Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, on March 14. Seveney was a co-sponsor of the bill.
“In its essence, it’s a good bill,” Seveney told a reporter earlier this month; he reiterated that point to students, but added that it was too “one size fits all.”
“Some of the things [in the bill] just weren’t going to work with every [school] district,” Cortvriend said in a phone conversation with The Daily News in late October. But she said she plans on re-introducing it for the upcoming legislative session, albeit with some tweaks. Euer did not respond to requests for comment. Asked if the bill would be re-introduced on the Senate side, Seveney said: “I don’t see why not,” and noted meetings with stakeholders.
According to the original legislation, all public school personnel — “including, but not limited to, teachers, administration, custodians, lunch personnel, substitutes, nurses, coaches and coaching staff even if volunteers” — would be required to undergo suicide awareness and prevention training. The original legislation also established a conflict resolution process for school personnel and students.
Steven Peterson, program director of ESI, said in an email to The Daily News on Nov. 14 that a revamped version of the legislation had not been finalized yet.
“We are shooting for mid-December on that,” Peterson said. “Not much will change, just some of the wording.”
According to the original bill, each public school district would be required to adopt a policy on student suicide prevention. The policies would include the following provisions:
• Parents or legal guardians would be notified as soon as there’s an issue between their child and school personnel in order to create a “safety net” for the student relating to suicide prevention.
• Districts would create clear complaint processes for general education students or their parent(s) or legal guardian(s). The complaint process would be used when a student or his or her guardian feels the school committed a misdeed or violated a right; it would be modeled after the current guidelines in place for students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), according to the legislation.
• Guidance counselors would instead be called “academic advisors.” The law stipulates that ”[i]f the staff member provides social emotional support for students for more than 60% of their work time, the staff shall be considered social emotional support staff ... .”
• “Concrete language” would be developed to define in-school and out-of-school issues.
• Clear employee conduct policies and regulations would be established “for when school personnel are involved with a student with whom they have had a prior incident that has caused a fracture in their relationship.”
“The key change would be the wording around the complaint process,” Peterson said in his email. “Also wording that will say the department of education will create a model policy for schools to follow around parent notification and the other elements of the law. One key addition we might add is that suicide prevention training is given to staff and volunteers as previously stated, but also to students.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island, in a letter dated March 20, expressed concern with the language of the original bill, The Daily News reported previously. “In brief, the bill that was introduced was very different from the versions that have passed in other states, and our concerns focused on those new provisions,” Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of Rhode Island, said in an email to The Daily News on Oct. 31.
The part of the legislation that reflects the Jason Flatt Act the ACLU didn’t take issue with, “however, the rest of the bill goes well beyond those laws by establishing a new and very detailed procedure addressing student-teacher conflict resolution. While aware of the tragic circumstances leading to this bill, we are concerned that this new language raises practical questions of implementation,” according to testimony from the ACLU of Rhode Island submitted in March, which Brown sent to this reporter in October.
The legislation is modeled after the Jason Flatt Act, which is already in place in several states. It was first passed in 2007 in Tennessee and requires all educators in that state to complete two hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training each year. Jason Flatt died by suicide in 1997 at age 16.
Patrick Crowley, assistant executive director of government relations with National Education Association Rhode Island, expressed “technical concerns about the bill” but noted the organization’s commitment to working with sponsors and supporters of the legislation, he said at the March hearing.
“What I’m proposing [for the revised bill], it may not be exactly what [the ESI members] wanted to do,” Cortvriend said. The elements of the bill that were specific to the circumstances surrounding Nathan’s death “are the things that were posing problems, so I would like to go back to what other states had done,” and just introduce a version of the Jason Flatt Act, and perhaps address the other elements of the bill in another fashion, outside of statewide legislation.
“I don’t know that [some ESI members] really wanted to make changes to it,” Cortvriend added. “We just need to circle back around with the ESI kids because, you know, we don’t want to be disrespectful to what they are trying to do.”
“I probably have a more pragmatic view...and they have a very personal experience,” Cortvriend said. “I’m respectful of the differences because these two viewpoints...usually the finished product is a series of compromises.”
Link to article newportri.com