CODY — Cody High School psychologist Dr. Daniel Cossaboon wants to make changes to a state law passed in 2014 designed to reduce the youth suicide rate in Wyoming.
At a school board meeting on Nov. 3, Cossaboon pleaded his case to Cody School Board, asking for its support to an amendment to the Jason Flatt Act, legislation from 2014 that required teachers and administrators to receive training on suicide prevention.
Cossaboon argued the legislation hasn’t done enough.
“It has saved students’ lives,” Cossaboon said of the act. “The issue I have is that it does not include training for students. If you look at the research, it’s very clear that if an adolescent is suicidal, 80% of the time they tell a student but not an adult. That’s the issue.”
The amendment has the support of several student groups, including the CHS Student Council and Youth For Justice. Youth For Justice was instrumental in getting the original version of the Jason Flatt Act passed in 2014. Several students, representing different groups, spoke at the board meeting in support of the amendment.
“I’m asking for your support in amending the Jason Flatt Act,” said CHS senior Soffy Anderson. “My half-sister committed suicide a year and a half ago. Maybe there would have been a different outcome if I knew what to do.”
The Jason Flatt Act is named after a Tennessee teenager who took his life in 1997. Flatt’s father described him as an average 16-year-old, the kind who got B’s in class and loved football. Education Week reported Flatt didn’t fit the typical profile of those who often commit suicide, that of a depressed loner or drug-addicted teen, which made the death all the more shocking.
Wyoming has historically had some of the highest suicide rates in the country, and the rates, particularly among youth, are on the rise, Cossaboon said. The suicide rate among young people, age 15-24, is substantially higher than the national average, according to the United Health Foundation Annual Report. More locally, records from Wyoming Vital Statistics Services show Park County was the only county in the state where suicide was in the top-five leading causes of death among residents in 2018, tied for fifth with Alzheimer’s disease.
Twenty states have now passed versions of the act, according to the Jason Foundation, a nonprofit started by Flatt’s father to provide training materials on suicide prevention.
The amendment to the act that Cossaboon and doctor of nursing candidate Jilaena Freitas proposed would mandate evidence-based suicide awareness and prevention training for students in grades 6-12 in addition to the training for teachers and administrators.
However, the text of the amendment, which goes before the Joint Education Committee of the Wyoming Legislature on Nov. 17 and 18, says that districts “may” include the training as part of their health curriculum.
“In the legislative world, we try not to tell people what to do, especially in school,” said Rep. David Northrup, R-Powell, who co-chairs the committee. “They could put that in P.E., health, social science, put that anywhere you want. To tell them you have to do it here or there or by this date, we don’t want to do that.”
Northrup said he thinks the amendment would pass the JEC and the Legislature because of the use of the word “may” instead of “shall.” The current wording of the amendment also gives districts the option to not include suicide prevention and awareness training for students in their curricula.
“If a district feels like that’s not important to the school, then they probably don’t want to waste time on such things,” Northrup said, noting that including the training was always an option for districts. “Sometimes, districts don’t understand you should be doing this kind of stuff until it’s brought to light. It’s a good way to publicize that suicide is going on in the K-12 community and we ought to be doing something about it.”
Neither Northrup nor Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, will get a say on the amendment should it reach the full Legislature in the new session. Coe is retiring and Northrup lost a bid for Coe’s Senate seat in the August primary.
Cossaboon, for his part, is hoping the language of the amendment is changed and the lawmakers on the JEC can recruit broader support for a mandate.
“We’re talking about lives,” Cossaboon said. “We have to try something. I can’t guarantee that it’s going to work, but it’s worth doing the work that we need to do to potentially save a student’s life.”
Despite the support of the amendment from teachers and students, the amendment would be difficult to pass at the state level if it were a mandate.
Chief among those concerns is cost. Cossaboon said the Legislature is unlikely to pass anything that would require additional funding from the state due to the ongoing budget crunch, but that there was a potential solution already in place.
“Suicide prevention training is already being spent on at the county level,” Cossaboon said in the meeting. “If it were mandated, all we would have to do is access the training. It’s about spending our money more wisely and making better use of the money already allocated and spent.”
Healthy Park County has received grants for mental health and suicide prevention the school district is tapping into.
Cossaboon said another concern of the state Legislature is that suicide prevention training will take away from valuable instruction time. He said CHS teachers aren’t concerned about that.
“I’ve talked to a majority of the teachers at the high school and not one was worried about losing a class period,” he said. “If it saves a single life, it will be worth it.”
It’s not just teachers in support of the amendment. Several students spoke at the meeting in favor of getting more training.
The board, for its part, was generally supportive of the measure, and as is standard practice, formed a committee to draft a letter stating its support to be sent to the legislators on the Joint Education Committee.
A handful of groups for mental health professionals also have provided letters of support, including the Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Team of Park County, the Wyoming Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers, Wyoming Chapter.
“There is no doubt that adolescent suicide in Wyoming is a serious public health issue that deserves our immediate attention,” wrote Lorraine Steppe, president of NASW, WY. “On behalf of NASW, WY, I am asking you to vote in favor of amending the Jason Flatt Act to include suicide and prevention training for all secondary school students in Wyoming.”
The Cody School District is already walking the walk. Through the use of funds allocated by Park County, the district has partnered with Healthy Park County to bring in mental health experts to provide training to students in the district on suicide prevention. The training was derailed by the pandemic but is expected to happen before Winter Break.
Cossaboon said the amendment and training will not be a magic bullet that will end youth suicide in Wyoming but sees it as a step in the right direction.
“The thinking is that if we have the training in six through 12, after several generations we might change that stat and get out of the top-five list,” Cossaboon said. “It’s probably one of the most effective ways to get off that darn list that we’ve been on for two decades. What we’re doing is not working.”