AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s virtually no way the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee could have given stronger support Tuesday to a bill that would require suicide prevention training in Maine’s public schools.

Not only did the committee give the measure its unanimous endorsement, but it also vowed to find a way to cover the cost of the program and called on the Department of Education to implement the law in time for the beginning of the next school year while putting the concept through a rigorous rule-making process that will bring the issue back to the committee next year.

Rep. Paul Gilbert, D-Jay, said after the vote that his bill, “An Act to Increase Suicide Awareness and Prevention in Maine Public Schools,” was the most important measure he has ever championed as a legislator.

“If I’m remembered for anything I’ve done in the Legislature, I hope it’s this bill,” said Gilbert, who sponsored the legislation at the suggestion of school guidance counselors in his district. “I can’t imagine anything bigger than saving a kid’s life.”

Earlier this month, the committee heard hours of heart-wrenching testimony from educators and parents, many of whom told personal stories about students, sons or daughters who have been lost to suicide. Speaker after speaker said that while a bill like this one can’t stop all suicides, it might well have made a difference for some.

The bill would require the Department of Education and local schools to implement programs for all personnel to complete suicide prevention awareness training and for at least two people from every school district to undergo more extensive suicide prevention and intervention training.

It was clear from the start of Tuesday’s work session that lawmakers on the Education Committee were supportive, with some tearfully relating their own personal stories of a sibling or a neighbor who died by suicide. One of them was Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, who lost his younger brother to suicide in addition to two students he taught during his teaching career.

“It’s just pretty rough,” said Langley. “One of the students I might have suspected. The other one, that was really tough. If we’re better aware of what those signs are, we might be able to pick up on one of them.”

Sen. Chris Johnson, D-Somerville, gave an impassioned plea to his colleagues to support the bill.

“I think it’s time that we don’t view this in light of other education issues,” he said. “This is a matter of life or death so our young people can live out their adult lives and fulfill the expectations of everyone.”

Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, suggested that if the committee is serious about the bill, its members have to find a way to provide funding so suicide prevention and awareness training doesn’t go to public schools as an unfunded mandate. According to the committee’s analyst, the training is offered for free by nonprofit groups such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine. The only cost to local school districts would be for hiring substitute teachers while full-time teachers take the training.

“If you lined up all the trainings we ask our educators to do, I would put this one at the top,” said McClellan. “This might be an opportunity to be bold as a committee and put this into the budget and pay for it. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.”

In addition to its vow to cover any costs — which were described as “moderate statewide” in the bill’s fiscal note — the committee amended the bill so it will go through both routine and major substantive rule processes concurrently. That means if passed by the Legislature, which would require a two-thirds vote of both chambers if a mandate preamble is attached, the bill would take effect for the coming school year and require the Department of Education to come back to the Education Committee after it has drafted rules. The bill calls for a ramp-up of the training, which is to be in full effect during the 2014-15 school year.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.