SALT LAKE CITY — A FOX 13 investigation has revealed schools across the state of Utah are inconsistent in their response to student suicide, despite state laws requiring districts to implement prevention programs.
Health experts have found it is critical for school districts to develop responsible policies that focus on suicide as a treatable public health issue.
Research shows a school’s response is especially important, as responsible steps taken after a student suicide can lead to suicide prevention rather than “suicide contagion.”
This story is part two of a two-part series, FOX 13 Investigates: Censoring Suicide.
Marina Jensen’s classmates tell FOX 13 they received Bonneville Junior High School yearbooks at the end of last school year and felt something was missing.
The only physical memory of the 14-year-old was a ripped-out page.
“Like physically ripped out,” said student yearbook editor Addison Condie. “You can see in the book that there’s remnants of a page.”
“That’s what they’re going to remember out of the yearbook,” added her father, Mike Condie. “It’s not going to be the writings on the page. It’s going to be the ripped-out page, and their mind’s automatically going to go to suicide.”
Luke Jensen, Marina’s father, said he was not aware of Granite School District’s decision until after being notified by FOX 13.
“It’s very distasteful,” Jensen said. “Initially, I mean the school came to my home. They were very kind… (I told them) I think this needs to open up more dialogue about mental health.”
The page, which would have shown a photo of yearbook advisor Marlena Henry wearing a t-shirt to honor Marina’s life, was removed by school administrators in an effort to avoid “retraumatizing” students.
Taryn Hiatt, the Utah area director of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), said Granite School District should have done a better job handling the case.
“In an effort to prevent what they were fearing, they created more of a buzz,” Hiatt said. “I do think that, had they had a policy in place, they wouldn’t have had to make that last-minute decision. And the photo that I’ve seen was in line. It was nothing that would have violated safe practice.”
Ben Horsley, a spokesperson for Granite School District, confirmed it does not have a “formal policy” for suicide response.
“It’s more of a procedure,” Horsley said. “It’s nothing different than what you saw in the tool kit provided to us by the state… because it’s written, we do believe we are compliant with state rule.”
As FOX 13 first reported on Wednesday, suicide experts have questioned whether Granite School District is appropriately applying state guidance, which was jointly published by several groups including AFSP.
For example, the toolkit states there are a number of healthy and appropriate ways to honor victims, including in the yearbook.
“The focus should be on mental health and/or suicide prevention,” the guidance states. “Underneath the picture it might say, ‘In your memory, we will work to erase the prejudice surrounding mental health problems and suicide.’”
According to Utah State Code 53G-9-702(2)(b)(iv), districts are legally required to “implement a youth suicide prevention program” that includes programs and training to address suicide response.
Though it is not specified as a requirement by statute, suicide postvention programs often include policies on how to notify families and bring mental health counselors on campus.
A spokesperson for the Utah State Board of Education tells FOX 13 failure to comply with the law could lead to schools being defunded, but he declined to provide an opinion on whether individual districts are in compliance.
“How we respond to a suicide death matters because it can either increase risk or mitigate risk,” Hiatt said. “We want to remember (Marina) for how she lived, not focus on how she died.”
Despite the lack of a “formal policy,” FOX 13 learned Granite School District did follow some best-practice guidelines after Marina’s death by placing mental health counselors on campus, sending out an email to parents, and giving students an opportunity to write letters to the family.
“If we can get a detailed policy in place, it keeps us from having situations like this,” Hiatt said. “It’s great that they have the toolkit, and they’re referencing it, but it would be nice to take it that next step further, and again make sure everybody in your school is aware of what our policy is if a student dies from suicide.”
In addition to Granite, FOX 13 checked with five of the largest school districts in northern Utah to compare policies.
The following districts were able to send us copies of their suicide response programs.
Although some policies were more specific than others, none of them address whether to memorialize a student in the yearbook. In each case, districts said they had a “practice” rather than a “policy” related to yearbooks.
Sandy Riesgraf, a spokesperson for Jordan School District, said they encourage schools to be consistent with the issuance of yearbook in-memoriam pages so that all students who die are treated equally, regardless of the cause of death.
Kirsten Stewart, a spokesperson for Canyons School District, said it follows the same practice.
Yandary Chatwin, a spokesperson for Salt Lake City School District, said student suicides and decisions regarding memorialization are handled through an “action plan” on a case-by-case basis.
Christopher Williams, a spokesperson for Davis School District, said schools typically do not provide in-memoriam pages in the yearbook for students who die by suicide, but schools are allowed to do so for students who die from other causes.
Granite School District confirmed it previously published an in-memoriam page in the yearbook for a Bonneville Junior High School teacher who died from cancer. The district has since abandoned the practice of providing in-memoriam pages to anyone, according to Horsley, in an effort create more consistency.
Representatives at Alpine School District told FOX 13 they are working on a new suicide response policy that will be implemented by next school year.
“Our new policy will include a policy statement, definitions, a process for referral and also a process for assessing the severity of a student who is having suicidal ideation, and a safety plan by a service provider with parental input,” said director of student services Lori Thorn. “Service providers are school counselors, school psychologists, and social workers. The policy includes Parental Notification and Involvement, and Postvention Procedures — which include the Crisis Checklist and resources included in our Crisis Drive.”
The Utah State Board of Education has published “model” suicide prevention and suicide response policies, which school districts can either adopt or use as a starting point.
Bryce Dunford, the vice president of Jordan School District’s Board of Education, said he is grateful for the opportunity to rethink district policies in an effort to ensure students are protected.
“We recognize that this is something we need to do,” Dunford said. “We need to be good at this!”
Dunford continues to think back to 2018, when seven students at Herriman High School took their own lives.
“I will never forget those who needed help, and we didn’t have it,” Dunford said. “We owe it to them to prevent anyone else from crying out and not having the help they need… It’s far too important that we respond right, that we check our egos and set all of that aside and say, ‘Look, let’s admit that maybe we haven’t done everything right in the past.’”
Although Dunford did not comment on the practices of other school districts, he recommended his colleagues and contemporaries make suicide prevention a priority.
“I will admit, education professionals in this state, they are brilliant when it comes to education. What we typically have not been is brilliant in terms of mental health,” Dunford said. “There was a time when reading, writing, and arithmetic were our jam, and that’s great. Now we need to get good at recognizing when students are struggling with mental health and providing the resources that they need. That’s part of an education.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visiting http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
If you prefer text messaging, simply send the word “HELLO” to 741-741 for free and confidential emotional support.