As the tragic circumstances of a Colorado fifth-grader’s suicide draws widespread attention, two state lawmakers said Friday they plan to introduce legislation next year aimed at helping schools try to prevent such cases.
“I want to have a conversation that 10-year-olds die by suicide,” state Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet told Chalkbeat. “And we need to be doing more to help them.”
The Commerce City Democrat’s comments follow the death of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, who hung herself in her closet, according to multiple reports. Ashawnty’s parents say she was “devastated” after a video of her confronting a bully after school was posted to a social media app, Musical.ly.
Anthony Davis and Latoshia Harris, Ashawnty’s mother and father, are raising questions about whether Sunrise Elementary in Aurora, part of the Cherry Creek School District, did enough to prevent the incidents before their daughter’s death.
Officials from the Cherry Creek School District say they took the appropriate steps. And suicide experts caution about attributing a suicide to a single event. Usually there are multiple factors, and clear answers are often elusive.
Still, Ashawnty’s death, along with a growing rate of suicides among Coloradans between the ages of 10 and 17, have parents, educators, activists and lawmakers wrestling with complex questions about bullying and suicide prevention in a digital age.
“We’re in a situation where students can no longer escape the bullying that happens at school, because of technology,” said Daniel Ramos, the executive director of One Colorado, which as the state’s largest lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocacy organization has taken a strong stance against bullying. “That’s something we need to better understand.”
It’s unclear how widespread bullying is in Colorado schools. Under Colorado law, schools aren’t required to exclusively report instances of bullying. They are, however, required to report events “detrimental to the welfare or safety of other students or of school personnel.” But that includes a wide range of issues, state officials said.
The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, a biennial questionnaire that a sample of Colorado students fill out on a volunteer basis, found in 2016 that by the eighth grade, half of all students reported being victims of bullying. And about 20 percent of high school students reported being a victim of bullying within the previous year.
Some Colorado schools — including some in the Cherry Creek School District — are attempting to make their schools safer places. More than 70 school are participating in a three-year, $2 million grant program to curb bullying.
“There’s no magic solution to reduce bullying,” said Adam Collins, the state Department of Education’s bullying prevention and education grant coordinator. However, the program is attempting to build teams of teachers, parents and students at participating schools to change the conversation around bullying.
“A lot of times, people feel like they want to help but they don’t know what to say or do,” Collins said, adding that some schools in the program are helping teachers come up with one or two different sentences they can use to defuse situations around bullying.
While some lawmakers are considering additional steps to prevent bullying at school, Michaelson Jenet and state Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat, want to equip educators and mental health providers with more tools to curb the state’s high child suicide rate.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been reported cases of children committing suicide in Colorado Springs, Littleton, Thornton and Grand Junction. The deaths have cut across racial and socioeconomic lines.
The rate of Colorado children taking their own lives has more than doubled in the last decade, data show. In 2016, nearly 10 out of every 100,000 Colorado kids took their own lives — 57 in total. Colorado’s suicide rate among children is one of the nation’s highest.
Todd’s bill would provide grants to schools for training teachers and staff in teaching life skills and preventing suicide.
“Our students need to be surrounded by highly qualified teachers, staff, and peers that have a greater level of focus on positive life skills and know when to seek higher levels of intervention to assist students indicating a need for help,” Todd said in a statement.
Michaelson Jenet’s bill would allow kids as young as 12 to meet with a licensed therapist to talk about their feelings without parental consent. Under current law, parents must be notified if a child under 15 seeks help.
The Commerce City lawmaker’s bill also would create a campaign to advertise the state’s suicide prevention text hotline and create a program to train adults in “mental health first aid.”
Michaelson Jenet, whose own son attempted suicide when he was 9, ran a similar bill seeking to lower the age of consent this year. It died in the Republican-controlled state Senate.
“This is the No. 1 question for our society in Colorado,” she said. “We have to answer the question —- How do we stop our kids from dying?”