The following is Councilmember Grosso's opening statement from the October 27, 2015 hearing on B21-361, the “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015” and B21-319, the “Assessment on Children of Incarcerated Parents Act of 2015”:

Good afternoon, I am Councilmember David Grosso, chairperson of the Committee on Education. We are in Room 412 of the John A. Wilson and I am calling this hearing to order.

Today, we will take up B21-361, the “Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015” and B21-319, the “Assessment on Children of Incarcerated Parents Act of 2015”.

As many of you know, the Committee on Education has been focused on trauma-informed schools and school-based mental health services for the past several months. Ensuring our students have the ability to overcome adversity is a top priority for this Committee.

Research has shown that if our students do not feel physical and emotional safety and trust, we won’t see the academic achievement and progress that we desire. It’s time for us to stop making a false choice between rigor and support.

That is why the Committee on Education has been looking for ways to ensure students have access to the necessary supports when struggling to overcome adversity, and that our educators are properly trained to recognize when a student may need help.

Ultimately, we know D.C. needs a comprehensive solution, but as we continue to research and discuss with advocates in the field, we felt it was important to take a first step on issues that can have real impact.

Today’s bills are different, but very much related in how they work to address adversity and trauma our students may be facing.

B21-361, the Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Act of 2015 requires OSSE to develop a training curriculum on suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention to be administered to all school based personnel; requires LEAs to adopt a policy on suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention; and also requires the development and distribution of school climate surveys to better get a sense of school environments that may contribute to adversity.

I think that it is safe to say that most people in this room and watching either online or at home have been affected by suicide. It is even more devastating when we lose our children to death by suicide.

There are some who believe this isn’t a big issue in the District of Columbia because we don’t have the headlines or news stories that some other jurisdictions have seen. Overall, according to the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, 13.4% of high school students in the District of Columbia had attempted suicide within the last 12 months. If that percentage remains the same today, we can estimate that roughly 1,520 DCPS high school students may attempt to end their lives this school year. These students should be learning and thriving, not planning to end their own lives.

Positive school climates are linked to increased academic achievement, increased attendance, increased graduation rates, and to a decrease in bullying and violence. Anecdotally, we know that some of schools have more work to do in this regard, but an assessment of school climate will give us broader perspective of how far we need to go.

Speaking of the importance of assessments, B21-319, the “Assessment on Children of Incarcerated Parents Act of 2015” requires the Mayor to comprehensively assess the impact on children who have at least one parent that is incarcerated.  The bill specifies that the assessment must: (1) evaluate the impact of parental incarceration on the child’s academics; and (2) recommend policies to meet the needs of children who are struggling academically while a parent is in incarcerated.  

International human rights advocates have called parental incarceration, “the greatest threat to a child’s well-being” in the U.S. Previous research has shown that having a parent incarcerated hurts children, both educationally and financially. For instance, according to PEW Research, children with fathers who have been incarcerated are significantly more likely than other children to be expelled or suspended from school. We know that children who are expelled or suspended from school or more likely to end up in the criminal justice system, and a cycle begins.

Often in D.C. we talk about the needs of returning citizens, but we have not fully explored the impact of incarceration on our children, nor taken specific steps to meet the needs of those children. B21-319 attempts to change that.

Taken together, these measures will help save students’ lives and put them in the best position to learn, succeed, and overcome whatever adversity is thrown their way. As I mentioned earlier, this is by no means a silver bullet, I know there is more to be done in this arena, but it’s time for us to get started. I think these issues are just as important as us discussing graduation rates or PARCC results. After all, it’s all linked. As I said earlier, as a city it is time for us to stop making a false choice between rigor and support.

Many of the witnesses here today are here to discuss B21-361, and so what we will do is recess this hearing until November 12 at 2pm in Rm 123 to allow for more time to spread the word and get public witnesses for a more robust conversation on the issues of B21-319. The issue is simply too important.