Politics & Policy

Death in The Classroom

An emotional debate begets dangerous legislation.

Occasionally a bill hits Capitol Hill over which there is remarkably little debate. The Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Bill is an extreme example of this.

Actually, according to news reports, there is no debating the bill, which would provide additional federal funding for suicide-prevention programs in U.S. schools:

It is rare for the entire U.S. Senate to agree on an issue, and rarer still for politicians to share the details of their private lives. Yet that is what happened Thursday night when several lawmakers rose in an emotional display of support for a colleague grieving a son’s death from suicide.

Well, of course. If you are against suicide, you are for the bill, right?

It’s not that easy. Or at least it shouldn’t be. The bill, which unanimously passed the Senate in July, is expected to be on the floor of the House of Representatives later today. It would authorize $82 million in federal grants for youth suicide-prevention programs. To support the legislation, Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith, whose college-student son committed suicide last year after a long struggle with mental illness, told the Senate in July, “No family should experience the pain we have suffered, and no child should face the challenges of mental illness alone.”

No compassionate person would disagree with Senator Smith there. But empathy does not necessarily translate into “This bill is a good idea.”

Reuters reported that the Senate chamber was empty when Smith began his heart-wrenching speech in support of the bill earlier this summer. But by the end of his testimony, senators were lined up to embrace him–and to offer their own grief to the Record.

Senator Don Nickles (R., Okla.) told the Senate, after revealing his father’s suicide, “I have no doubt as a result of us passing this legislation, we’ll end up saving a lot of lives, maybe thousands of lives.”

Not necessarily. No less than The Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry have reported that “Suicide awareness programs in schools…have not been shown to be effective either in reducing suicidal behavior or in increasing help seeking behavior.” Most kids who take their own lives are mentally ill–they need help a school suicide-prevention program isn’t going to help them. Gordon Smith’s 21-year-old son was bipolar, and had been getting treatment. Don Nickles’s father was, obviously not a ten-year-old (the starting age the legislation is geared toward). For some of the children these new federally funded programs would reach, “awareness” is putting ideas in their already normally confused adolescent heads. Such programs could actually be harmful.

Unsurprisingly, the bill–which has been featured, with tearful Senate images, on The Today Show–is likely to pass the House. Current behind-closed-doors negotiations over parental notification (Senate Democrats reportedly want loose rules) may be the only real chance to end, or at least slow, the momentum for the bipartisan bill.

New Jersey Republican Scott Garrett, one of the few who dare to oppose the death-education legislation, tells National Review Online: “This legislation encroaches on parent’s right to educate [his] child as [he] see fit, while also allowing for yet another expansion of federal government in the health-care sector–and all for a program that the family, not the federal government, should have jurisdiction over.” Says Rep. Garrett, “This legislation allows for Washington bureaucrats to determine the best way to educate our children on suicide prevention, rather than allow for parents to determine how they would want for their children to best be informed on the issue. Parents know their children best and know their needs and how to address them.”

Recent news of tragic college-student suicides are likely to further push this bill toward passage. But a Beltway universally in favor of “the children” needs to take a closer look at what actually benefits them–and talking suicide in the classroom does not. This legislation-by-emotion makes for touching TV, but bad government.

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