Mother who lost daughter supports youth suicide training in schools

By Ashley Shuler
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS —  On a rainy night in May 2012, Lana Swoape came home to find her daughter’s body.

Just two weeks shy of her 16th birthday, Swoape’s daughter Tori had used a scarf to hang herself using her bedroom doorknob.

Lana Swoape (left) poses with her middle child, Tori Swoape (right). Tori Swoape—who her mother describes as “always smiling”—committed suicide in May 2012 after escalating online and in-person bullying from classmates. Photo provided by Lana Swoape

“I blame myself. I was with her every day,” she said. “Why didn’t I see this?”

Swoape is one of several individuals and organizations who have voiced their support for House Bill 1430, which would require teachers and other staff members who have regular contact with students to undergo two hours of youth suicide and prevention awareness training every year.

The training could be online or in-person and would add another in-service topic to each school’s training discussion.

Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Merrilville, authored the bill. Her legislation was inspired by the Jason Flatt Act, which was first passed in 2007 in Tennessee and has been enacted in 19 states.

The Jason Flatt Act has the same requirements as Olthoff’s bill, which mandates youth suicide training for a teacher to be licensed in the state.

Indiana’s bill requires no state money, as the training would happen during a school corporation’s regular in-service training.

Swoape said legislation like this could help students in a situation like her daughter Tori’s.

Tori had on-and-off difficulties with bullying at her Muncie and Bloomington schools. She committed suicide after a friend blackmailed her and told her to kill herself through a text message that night, Swoape said.

Since Tori’s suicide, her mother has shared her story, including in  a viral online campaign using #StopBullyingForTori and #StandUpSpeakOut.

Rep. Julie Olthoff, R-Merrilville, talks about a bill she authored about youth suicide to the education committee Thursday. The bill, if passed, would require teachers and counselors employed by schools who teach grades 7–12 to participate in youth suicide awareness and prevention training. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

“I wanted Tori’s picture out there because I wanted people to see you didn’t have to be a loner or a nerd to get bullied and take your own life,” Swoape said. “I wanted people to see and say ‘look, this beautiful face, and she was still being bullied.’”

Swoape isn’t alone in her loss. More than 100 Hoosier families experience the suicide of a young person in their lives.

Indiana ranks first in the nation for the number of young people who have considered suicide and second in the number of youth who have actually killed themselves, according to a report from the Indiana Youth Institute.

In 2014, 119 young people ages 15–24 took their lives in Indiana and in 2015, it grew to 129 suicides.

Olthoff said the rising numbers led her to author the bill and suggested awareness in schools is the first place to start.

Mindi Goodpaster, public policy director for the Marion County Commission on Youth, spoke in favor of the youth suicide bill during the education committee meeting Thursday.

She said requiring awareness training is important because if teachers can recognize the behavior, they connect students to the right resources, whether that be in school or at home.

“They’re in a critical place to understand and recognize if a child is struggling,” Goodpaster said. “We’re not saying that teachers have to become counselors. That’s not their responsibility. But a teacher knows their students. They have contact with them every single day, five days a week. They understand when their students may be having difficulties.”

In a House education committee meeting Thursday, representatives Tony Cook, R-Cicero, and Woody Burton, R-Whiteland, raised concerns about the frequency and length of training.

Mindi Goodpaster, who is the public policy director for the Marion County Commission on Youth, speaks in favor of the youth suicide bill. She said requiring awareness training is important because teachers have regular contact with their students and could recognize their suicidal behavior. Photo by Ashley Shuler, TheStatehouseFile.com

Burton said the bill could create too much for teachers to do on top of their regular training if it were to occur every year and wasn’t streamlined with other related topics the state requires training in.

“Schools, unfortunately, can be the epicenters for some of these issues,” Goodpaster said in response to the legislator questions. “Teachers are burdened. We know that. We know how burdened they are. But we also believe teachers deserve the resource and the tools to understand how to help their students. Teachers want to help their students.”

Olthoff said the committee seemed open to the bill with some changes, like requiring the training less frequently. She’s meeting with the Department of Education to discuss streamlining the training before the committee votes.

The education committee will vote on the amended bill Tuesday.

As for Lana Swoape, she supports this legislation and is working on some of her own projects to stop youth suicide, including a program to help prevent bullying in elementary schools, to carry her on daughter’s legacy.

“I’m doing this for Tori,” Swoape said. “We can’t fix peoples’ home lives. We can’t get the parents to do it. We have to get the schools, because if we don’t educate our teachers and students about this, it’s going to keep happening.”

Ashley Shuler is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news site powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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