New York lawmakers have work to do before they can reach agreement on legislation to require all teachers instructing grades 7-12 be trained how to respond when a student shows suicidal tendencies.
Youth suicides have reached an all-time high, with suicide as the second leading cause of death among young people, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
One in four LGBTQ youth experience suicidal thoughts, and are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth, according to NAMI.
But a push to pass the state Student Suicide Prevention Act failed this session. The measure stalled in the Education Committee in both chambers again this year, frustrating advocates.
"This is not a problem with the teachers unions, this is a problem with particular elected officials who currently don't have the courage," said queer rights activist Max Micallef.
Micallef survived a suicide attempt when he was in 11th grade, and said the bill would heighten youth suicide prevention, intervention and postvention and could have prevented himself from reaching that point as a teen struggling with his identity.
Similar, but different, versions of the bill exist in the state Senate and Assembly — a significant hurdle for passage.
New York State United Teachers President Andy Pallotta stressed the need for funding to hire trained mental health staff to help address rising classroom crises when asked about the bill Friday.
"As an educator, when you have a student in crisis, your sole focus is triaging their needs — but you can't do that alone," Pallotta said in a statement. "The most immediate thing we can do to help our students is hire trained mental health staff to bring case loads down and help classroom staff implement proven social-emotional learning strategies."
Anxiety, depression and other mental health or behavioral disorders have skyrocketed over the past several years with the rise of social media and in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Teachers are commonly the first person students share their suicidal thoughts or signs of mental health issues with.
"Helping students in crisis is essential and so is doing the proactive work with our children to help keep them from reaching that point in the first place," Pallotta added.
Lawmakers are also concerned about imposing another unfunded mandate on schools. It's unclear how much the training would cost to implement.
Bill sponsor Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, stressed expenses to individual school districts would be minimal, as local boards of education would adopt Education Department curriculum.
"That to me seems like a pretty lame excuse considering we're talking about the protection of the well-being of our children," Hoylman said. "That said, if Albany is going to pass measures like this, we need to make sure we have the funding in place."
Micallef stressed the bill is not a performative education mandate, and will ease the burden on educators.
"If anything, it gets rid of the burden of having teachers be left not knowing what to do when a student says 'I don't feel my life is worth living,'" he said.
Organizations in support of the measure, like Equality NY, New Pride Agenda and Girls for Gender Equity, stress the bill must have two critical changes before it's ready for a vote.
Advocates want to ensure schools will rely on mental health agencies and community organizations to respond to a crisis instead of law enforcement, and minimize the use of mechanical restraints.
"Prioritizing those groups over those people, over law enforcement agencies, who really do not have the training to address these issues and cause for trauma," Micallef said. "And that helps everyone, it helps the students and law enforcement officials who should not be given that burden as well."
Schools should have mental health officials on speed-dial, Hoylman said. He stressed the need for more conversations to educate lawmakers about the issue.
"Clearly, we need to pass the bill and make it a priority in both houses," the bill sponsor said. "The timing is right to get it across the finish line next session."
Hoylman is eager to work with advocates, who plan to meet in August to discuss the best way forward to pass the act, including seeking other lawmakers to drive the issue.
"We know if we have to switch it up in our approach, we will," Micallef said. "There's no way we're going to take any less than exactly what we're asking for. If we don't include the policing topic in this bill, it's only going to serve but a few youth."
In a statement, Senate Education Committee Chair Shelley Mayer supports the idea behind the Student Suicide Prevention Act, but said conflicting bills in the Senate and Assembly made it impossible to advance.
"While the ‘Student Suicide Prevention Act’ has merit, it lacked an Assembly version, which would make it impossible to enact – even if it had passed the Senate," she said in a statement Friday. "As always, people who are concerned or wish to advocate for specific policies – especially related to education – are welcome to contact my office to engage in productive dialogue.”
Hundreds of bills are introduced into the Education Committee each session.
The senator fought for a $10 million program this year to support mental health services for students.
"It is vital to support students in need of mental health services and encourage those who wish to pursue a career path in this field," she added.