According to the World Health Organization, suicide remains among the leading causes of death for teens. When I became a teacher, I never envisioned the emails to attend funerals for former students. I received one recently regarding a young man who was enrolled in my eighth-grade class just a few years ago, a student who had taken his own life. As a mother, I worry that we are not doing enough for Arizona students. Many of my students are slipping through the cracks of a system that is failing them.
I’m terribly grateful for Sen. Sean Bowie’s sponsorship of Senate Bill 1468. With this bill, teachers and staff will undergo evidence-based suicide prevention, intervention and referral training every three years. This instruction is essential and a great place to start. But in order for teachers to reach all of their students, there needs to be fewer students in the classrooms.
We need more than the ability to recognize warning signs; we need the resources that allow teachers the time and energy to intervene. Simply put, teachers need more opportunities to interact with students, and this is only possible when there are smaller, more manageable class sizes.
Teachers aren’t the only ones trying to support our students while coming up short of resources. School counselors are overloaded and unable to assist the young people who desperately need them. According to the American School Counselor Association, the recommended student-to-counselor ratio in the United States is 250:1. Arizona students number 900-per-counselor, which is the highest ratio in the nation, making it almost impossible for these professionals to do their jobs to the best of their abilities.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey should insist upon sustainable funding in this year’s budget to immediately reduce these deadly ratios. We can also provide inroads for community-based programs, to educate students and parents, and to provide resources to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness.
One powerful model is Kid in the Corner, a grassroots organization started by family and friends of Zach Sumner, who died by suicide in 2017. His mom, Francine Sumner, presented at my middle school recently, and if more students had access to such presentations that put a face on mental illness, far fewer would fail to seek help.
Most of us agree upon the academic costs of underfunding and overcrowding Arizona’s students. There is far less public discussion of the emotional and psychological costs for young people when the schools aren’t funded in ways that make them nurturing, supportive places, where adolescents in distress are surrounded by adults who are trained to reach them and number sufficiently to do so. JN
Jennifer Samuels is running for Maricopa County School Superintendent. For more information, go to samuels2020.com.