Father, friends hit State House to ‘Be Great for Nate’

Suicide prevention education bill gets widespread support

By Jim McGaw
Posted 3/21/19

PROVIDENCE — Friends of the late Nathan Bruno came out in droves to the State House Wednesday night to support a suicide prevention education bill bearing his name.

They wore “Be …

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Father, friends hit State House to ‘Be Great for Nate’

Suicide prevention education bill gets widespread support

Posted

PROVIDENCE — Friends of the late Nathan Bruno came out in droves to the State House Wednesday night to support a suicide prevention education bill bearing his name.

They wore “Be Great for Nate” T-shirts and filled the House and Senate viewing galleries, where separate versions of the Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act were introduced, before attending subcommittee hearings where some of them testified in support of the legislation.


Read more testimony in support of the Nathan Bruno and Jason Flatt Act.


“It seems like the whole community is here,” remarked Sen. Hanna Gallo, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Education, which held one of the two hearings on the bill.

Front and center was Nathan’s father, Rick Bruno, who pleaded with lawmakers to pass measures requiring all public school districts to adopt suicide prevention policies and to annually train all personnel in suicide awareness and prevention. The legislation also requires schools to notify parents when there’s a conflict between their child and a teacher.

“Last year my only child, Nathan Bruno, died by suicide,” Mr. Bruno testified. “It’s my belief that my son died in despair and hopelessness over a situation that could have and should have been handled differently by school staff.”

Nathan took his life at the age of 15 on Feb. 7, 2018, after rumors had spread around school he was one of the students responsible for making crank calls and texts, starting in the previous December, to the school’s football coach at the time. The coach had contacted police in his hometown of Jamestown to investigate, and they informed him in early January that Nathan was a suspect.

“When my son died on Feb. 7, 2018, I had only been notified a week earlier about an issue with school staff (that had occurred outside of school), but that had been ongoing in school since early January 2018,” Mr. Bruno said. “That issue involved a coach, school administration and law enforcement. I had no idea that any issue existed. Without my knowledge or involvement, the school held a meeting with Nathan, meetings about Nathan and made educational decisions including a schedule change.”

During this tumultuous period in Nathan’s life, Mr. Bruno said his son did not receive a single check-in from school counselors or socio-emotional support staff.

“You may ask why — why didn’t he receive any support from school counselors? He did not receive any support because the socio-emotional supports did not know that Nathan had any issues with school staff,” said Mr. Bruno.

Mr. Bruno said the proposed legislation will ensure no student will be in a similar situation as Nathan, who was “ostracized and bullied by his peers without any safety net being implemented to protect his socio-emotional well-being.”

During his testimony, Mr. Bruno held a letter in support of the legislation from Clark Flatt, the father of Jason Flatt, a Tennessee boy who took his life in 1997 at the age of 16, and whose name also appears on the bill. 

Mr. Bruno said he didn’t think it was a coincidence he had woken up Wednesday morning at 6:19, and that Nathan’s birthday was June 19 (6/19). Wednesday would also have been Jason Flatt’s birthday, he noted.

“It is also the first day of spring, a time of growth and rebirth and the day that we are bringing this bill to the General Assembly. It is my hope that this bill can help save lives,” Mr. Bruno said in conclusion.

Nate’s friends shaped bill

Although the bill is modeled after the Jason Flatt Act, which has been adopted as law by 21 other states, its sponsors say members of Every Student Initiative (ESI), formed in the wake of Nathan’s death by his friends at PHS, also had a hand in shaping its language. (ESI, which falls under the umbrella of Be Great for Nate, a nonprofit started by Mr. Bruno, advocates for more mental health resources in the schools.)

“An event like this makes everyone question what did we miss? How can we do better?” said Rep. Terri Cortvriend (D-Dist. 72, Portsmouth, Middletown) during her testimony before the House Committee on Health, Education and Welfare. Rep. Cortvriend, one of the bill’s sponsors, was chairwoman of the Portsmouth School Committee at the time of Nathan’s death. 

“To their credit, a group of Nathan’s friends who you will hear from tonight wasted no time in working to address the second question —how can we do better? This bill is largely a result of their efforts, research and advocacy,” Rep. Cortvriend said. “Those children are our children and they are crying out for help. We recognize the invaluable role that teachers and coaches play in the lives of the children they come in contact with. Let’s make sure they are trained to recognize the signs of kids who are emotionally in a dangerous place.”

Another local co-sponsor, Sen. Jim Seveney (D-Dist. 11, Portsmouth, Bristol, Tiverton), spoke directly to members of ESI and other PHS students crowding the Senate subcommittee’s hearing room. 

“You’ve put so much into (the legislation). I’m very proud of your friendship and care,” said Sen. Seveney.

He noted that the bill has two parts — prevention and “postvention” — that latter term referring to counseling or other social care given to students after another child’s suicide or attempted suicide.

“How does the school district beef up its resources on suicide prevention, and when we fail in that regard, how do we help the rest of those who are left behind?” Sen. Seveney said.

Sen. Dawn Euer (D-Dist. 13, Newport, Jamestown), the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, also praised the teenagers’ initiative, saying they worked to turn a tragic situation into something positive for the future. 

“This bill isn’t intended to dwell on the past,” she said, noting the measure hopes to train school staff members so they can “prevent suicides before they happen.”

Students speak

One of the students who testified before the House and Senate subcommittees was PHS freshman Marcus Evans of ESI.

“I joined ESI because i didn’t want anyone to feel the pain that everyone around me was feeling after Nathan's passing, and I truly believe that my generation could be the one to end suicide,” Marcus told lawmakers.

He addressed a section of the bill proposing that school guidance counselors be assigned the title of “academic advisor,” for purposes of clarity.

“The label of guidance or school counselor can be extremely misleading for teens that are looking for support,” Marcus said. “Guidance counselors usually have the primary job of assisting with scheduling needs and preparing students for the college application process. There are usually staff members that are better suited to help meet the social-emotional needs of students.”

Devon Piermont, a senior at PHS, also spoke in support of the bill. After a family member died from suicide when she was 15, Dawn said her emotional health suffered and her grades plummeted because she wasn’t comfortable opening up to peers and adults about the tragedy.

“It’s something that’s not easy to talk about,” she said. “I think it’s sad that we had to lose someone in our own community before we started talking about it.”

Owen Ross, president of ESI, also testified for the bill. Waiting in a hallway before the Senate subcommittee hearing, he said members of the student advocacy group were grateful to be given the chance to do something positive in the name of their friend, Nate.

“It means a lot to all of us, definitely, just to finally have the chance. to have a law for him. I never really imagined that this would even happen, but it’s huge,” Owen said.

Mr. Bruno, in turn, said he appreciated how the community has rallied around the cause, and hopes the legislation will prevent another tragedy.

“The support’s been overwhelming, not only from Nathan’s close friends who have formed ESI, but just the community in general,” he said. “I’m obviously here to try to help other families in the community to bring heightened awareness to suicide prevention, postvention, and just work together as a community to end suicide among youth.”

Nathan Bruno, Every Student Initiative, Nate Bruno

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Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.