MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia on Tuesday became the seventh state to enact a law aimed at preventing suicides among young people, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the bill before some of the very teenagers it targets.
"It's not easy to talk about, but it's a matter of life and death," Tomblin told the Morgantown High School students who crammed onto the gymnasium bleachers for the ceremony.
"About 15 times every single day of the year," he said, "somebody's parents or their friends have to live through the most awful heartbreak I can possibly imagine."
Morgantown teenagers may think they're immune, Tomblin said, "but you're wrong."
The Jason Flatt Act of 2012 aims to make sure that principals, teachers and other educators are trained to recognize the warning signs and reach out to students in crisis.
Jason Flatt was a 16-year-old student in Tennessee when he killed himself in July 1997. Ten years later, legislators there passed a law requiring that in-service training for teachers and principals include at least two hours of suicide prevention education each school year.
Jason's father, Clark Flatt, now runs The Jason Foundation Inc. in Hendersonville, Tenn. Launched in October 1997, it has 87 offices in 33 states, including one at River Park Hospital in Huntington.
The bill signing was the first done at a school, but Flatt said "there is no more fitting place."
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. for people ages 10 to 24, behind only accidents and homicides. Clark said it's the second-leading cause of death among the smaller segment of college-age students.
Jason Flatt was an average student, his father said. He earned B's and C's. He was a good athlete. He was active in his church.
He was not, his father thought, the kind of boy to take his own life.
"You see the changes in your friends way before anyone else," Flatt told the students. "You know when things are not quite right with a friend. You know when a friend might be struggling."
Four in five young people who attempt suicide had given clear warning signs, Flatt said, so students should be aware and prepared to respond, then take that friend to a responsible adult for help.
"You might just save their life," he said.
Tylon Miller, a 17-year-old junior, and Savannah Aronhalt, a 16-year-old sophomore, said the only time students talk about suicide is in health class. Neither girl has any experience with the problem, but both they said the speeches make them think more about the teenage bullying that can sometimes lead to suicide.
"If somebody's being mean to somebody," Miller said, "then just step up and help them."
The state House and Senate unanimously passed the bill last week, after it had faltered in three previous sessions. The Senate Finance Committee derailed the bill at least once after questioning who would handle the training.
But the Senate took the lead on the bill this session, advancing it in January. That allowed delegates to send the measure to Tomblin well before the session's Saturday conclusion.
House Education Chair Mary Poling credits Delegate Charlene Marshall and Sen. Bob Beach, both Monongalia County Democrats, for championing the proposal and pushing for its passage. Both attended Tuesday's ceremony.
Tomblin said even one suicide in West Virginia this year would be one too many.
"We're here today because every single one of you is very precious to us," he said.
"We know that this part of life can be tough sometimes and we want each and every one of you to get through it safe and sound," he said, "because you all have long, wonderful lives ahead of you."