Senate File 270 relates to the health education requirement for 9-12 grade under the education standards of Iowa. It adds mental health awareness, coping skills and suicide prevention to the subject matter that must be included in the unit of health education which school districts and accredited nonpublic schools must offer and teach.
Jennifer Ulie-Wells is executive director of Please Pass The Love. That organization worked in conjunction with Republican Sen. Charles Schneider on the legislation.
“I wear multiple hats as a non-profit executive director, school board member, a mom and educator,” she said. “As you know, suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people. There are small things we can be doing that make a big difference.”
Last year the group surveyed more than 400 schools and over 60 percent of schools are already including this in their health curriculum.
Margaret Buckton of Urban Education Network of Iowa said her group typically has concerns about unfunded mandates, but believes this to be something that can simply be added content to what already exists.
“We don’t see it as an additional burden,” she said.
Phil Jeneary of the Iowa Association of School Boards said they too support the bill, but wondered if specific curriculum was in mind.
Ulie-Wells mentioned free curriculum available out of Canada. She also said the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland would be putting together curriculum.
“It’s just adding on to the content,” she said. “If we’re going to start teaching different kinds of rocks, teachers are fairly equipped to keep up with what’s out there.”
Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Planned Parenthood Voters of Iowa lobbyist Jamie Burch spoke next. She noted that Planned Parenthood is a key provider for Iowa sex education curriculum.
“We support this bill — it’s great,” she said. “I do caution that putting this responsibility on Iowa’s educators and sex educators, this obviously is a part of a broader spectrum of providing these resources to Iowa’s children. I also suggest if we’re opening up the curriculum, let’s also suggest including language on dating violence and consent in this bill as well.”
She also said Planned Parenthood would be more than happy to work with providing curriculum.
“We use curriculum provided by, well, folks in this room,” she said.
Melissa Peterson of Iowa State Education Association supported the bill.
“I would just hope that this is the beginning of the conversation in terms of addressing the mental health awareness component for our students,” Peterson said. “This is a terribly important issue, not just because of the prevalence of suicide in our school system with most of our young kids, this is just a drop in the bucket.”
Lu Ann Barnes of Ankeny said she has a vested interest with two parents who have mental health issues. She also helps with mental health ministry and a member of the Polk County Suicide Coalition.
“I can’t say enough to support this bill,” Barnes said. “We absolutely need more and more education about this in our schools.”
Mary Neubauer of Clive lost a child to suicide.
“The stats as folks have mentioned this morning relating to anxiety, depression and suicide among young people are alarming and heart breaking,” she said. “They’re moving in the wrong direction. It behooves all of us to look at big and small tools that we can add to our tool box to try to change those numbers and turn the trend around.”
Democrat Sen. Amanda Ragan said she’d like to see the bill applied to younger students.
“There’s a lot of 13-year-olds and younger that are missed in this as well,” she said. “It’s such a volatile age. That’s an issue.”
Senator Tim Kraayenbrink asked if there’s any research showing the impact of this where it already exists.
The Department of Education said the curriculum has been a part of classrooms in Iowa voluntarily doing this since 2007.
“Is it working or do we have to make a stronger effort,” Kraayenbrink said. “I understand we are headed in the right way of materials that are being used.”
Ulie-Wells said Canada’s system has worked outstanding. She also highlighted LGBTQ youth who would benefit from the legislation.
Kraayenbrink, a Republican, also asked about parental involvement.
Burch, of Planned Parenthood, said conversations don’t always happen between parents and their children on these issues.
“When it comes to human growth, those aren’t always conversations parents are comfortable having. Iowa’s youth aren’t comfortable having them with their parents. In some cases school is the only opportunity for students to have these conversations.”
Republican Sen. Jeff Edler signed off in support as well.
“I think there is a bigger discussion,” Edler said. “These are small pieces of trying to fix a larger problem. You know, when you look at the problem, one of the questions that I continually keep coming up with is what’s led to the desensitization of life in our children? That’s the bigger question that I think everyone in this room needs to ponder — how did we get here.”