Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe chose Prince William County’s Forest Park High School to sign two new bills aimed at preventing teen suicide and informing parents about alleged bullying incidents that involve their children.
McAuliffe (D) signed the new legislation at the Montclair-area high school Tuesday afternoon alongside members of two local families who recently lost teenage children to suicide. Brent Freeze’s daughter, Payton Freeze, was a senior at Battlefield High School when she died in early 2016. Kim Fleming held a picture of her son, David Cobb, who suffered from depression and died in 2015, at 17.
The governor chose Forest Park at the suggestion of state Sen. Jeremy McPike, D-29th, who lost a younger brother to suicide.
McPike has participated in Forest Park’s annual Suicide Awareness Walk for the past two years and credited the 12th grade students in teacher Shannon Geraghty’s A.P. Government class for raising awareness about suicide in the community. He also thanked the Breeze and Cobb families for their courageous efforts to prevent other parents from suffering the same tragedy.
“We lost our brother 18 years ago. He was a junior in high school, and so this is something that is very near and dear to our hearts,” McPike said of himself and his older brother, Eddie, who also attended the ceremony. “I was silent for 15 years. I couldn’t talk about it. I didn’t have the strength…You are so much more courageous to step up and dig in and be a voice.”
McAuliffe signed McPike’s House Bill 1117, which requires school counselors to receive training in mental health disorders and behavioral distress, including depression, trauma, violence, youth suicide and substance abuse, before obtaining or renewing their state licenses.
The governor also took the opportunity to sign House Bill 1709, which requires school principals to inform parents of any investigation involving their child within five days of the first report of an alleged incident of bullying.
Del. Eileen Filler-Corn, who sponsored the bill, credited the Farbstein family, of Richmond, for bringing the idea of mandatory parental notification to her attention. Brandon Farbstein, a 17-year-old junior who has dwarfism, was a victim of cyberbullying and is now finishing his high school studies online because he no longer felt safe at school, his father, Steve Farbstein said.
McAuliffe said bullying “happens too much” at Virginia’s public schools and called it an issue that needs to be addressed.
“We want students to come to school to focus on education and not be worried about bullying,” McAuliffe said. “Or if there are issues, we want the counselors to be able to address those issues as soon as possible.”
In an interview after the ceremony, Brent Freeze said his daughter, Payton, was a victim of ongoing bullying that he was unaware of until the night before she took her life. He said he had planned to go to school the next day to seek help but didn’t get the chance.
He said he’d like for school teachers to be “mandatory reporters” of bullying, like they are for suspected child abuse, but said the new laws are a step forward.
“Today was a good day,” he added. “It’s a difficult day, but it’s what is needed.”
For his part, Brandon Farbstein said the bills are a “step in the right direction” toward raising awareness of the damaging effects of bullying as well as mental health challenges among students. The teen is now a motivational speaker who has appeared in TED Talks to advocate for people with disabilities.
“This is all about awareness. We know we’re not going to stop bullying, but awareness is key,” he said. “The more people who are aware of the problem, the more people we have working to find solutions.”
Equally important, Farbstein added, is to boost support for victims and encourage them to seek help. “So they know they’re not alone,” he added. “Ever.”
Reach Jill Palermo at firstname.lastname@example.org