After Jack Padilla, a freshman at Cherry Creek High School, took his own life in February 2019, his family saw an outpouring of support: A school walkout where some students wore “#Jackstrong” shirts — a slogan for the work by Jack's friends and family to raise suicide awareness. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock shouted out “Jackstrong” in a message at a local lacrosse game in April.
In October came an effort by state officials, teens, mental health leaders and Padilla's father, Rick Padilla, to launch public service announcement-style videos to open up conversations about suicide. The videos racked up a collective thousands of views, and the numbers continue to climb.
Rick Padilla isn't stopping there.
“We're going to make a difference. It's something that's really important to me,” said Padilla, who is pushing for bills this year in the state Legislature to tackle youth mental health challenges. It's an issue that has seen increasing attention in the Denver metro area over the past year.
Gov. Jared Polis proclaimed Feb. 14 as Jack Padilla Day — the anniversary of the student's death — amid a celebration on the House floor at the state Capitol. Rick Padilla came to the Capitol again Feb. 26 for the second annual Suicide Prevention Day, an event hosted by mental health organizations to advocate for measures that activists hope will save lives.
Colorado ranked among both the 10 highest youth suicide rates and overall suicide rates in states across the country based on data in recent years, according to the Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention.
Five students in Cherry Creek School District died by suicide in less than six months last calendar year, and multiple students died by suicide in the span of 40 days in Adams 12 Five Star Schools recently, according to a Jan. 24 news release from Adams 12.
Along with experiencing depression, Jack Padilla dealt with bullying at school and on social media, Rick Padilla said. That's why he's pushing for a bill to be considered that he calls the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights,” or Jack's Law, which would make bullying policies consistent among Colorado school districts.
“What we want to do is have some mandatory anti-bullying laws rather than (different) school boards deciding if it's bullying and how to investigate,” said Rick Padilla, adding that establishing an appeal process would also be part of the goal.
State Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat, has been working with Padilla and other supporters on the potential bill, Padilla said. He's hoping for the backing of state Sen. Don Coram, a Republican of Montrose, who has indicated he may support the bill, Padilla said.
The idea for the bill came from Padilla and how the aftermath of his son's death was handled, he said.
Padilla also supports the following mental health-related measures, among others:
• House Bill 20-1005, which would make updates to Colorado's Safe2Tell program, an anonymous tip line used in school communities to report concerning or threatening behavior. The bill would ensure that a crisis operator receives all calls and texts initially and then routes non-crisis calls and texts appropriately. It would also establish an annual advertising campaign about awareness, use and misuse of Safe2Tell.
• Senate Bill 20-001, which would expand behavioral health training for K-12 school district employees. It requires the Colorado Department of Education to offer a “train the trainer” program to prepare employees to teach a youth behavioral and mental health training course. That course could include identifying mental health challenges and substance-use disorders, bullying prevention and intervention strategies, encouraging positive bystander behavior, and how to provide assistance in non-crisis and crisis situations, among others.
• Senate Bill 20-014, which would require school districts' attendance policies to include excused absences for behavioral health concerns.
• House Bill 20-1028, which would require the School Safety Resource Center in the Colorado Department of Public Safety to study the availability of residential mental health treatment beds for youth. The effort would assess school districts' needs for treatment for youths who have been identified as having severe behavioral or mental health challenges. The center would prepare a report and “make any legislative recommendations” to address those needs.
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