Connecting state and local government leaders
Rick Padilla, suicide prevention administrator for Denver, works to help kids speak—and be heard—about their struggles with mental health. His efforts have lead to city initiatives and state legislation.
Last week, seated before the Colorado Senate Education Committee, Rick Padilla prepared, once again, to tell the story of the worst day of his life.
“I represent our family, and our son, Jack,” he told legislators at a hearing on Thursday. “Jack was a freshman at Cherry Creek High School who died by suicide two years ago.”
Padilla, an administrator with the city of Denver, was there to testify in support of a proposal that would require the state Department of Education to consult stakeholders, including parents of bullied students, during a planned update of its bullying prevention plan. Should it pass, the bill, approved 6-0 by the education committee, would be known as Jack and Cait’s Law, in honor of Padilla’s son and Cait Haynes, another Colorado teen who died by suicide.
Telling Jack’s story is never easy, but there is a purpose to it, Padilla said. Nationally, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teens between the ages of 15 and 19; in Colorado, the rate of suicide among teens in that age group has doubled since 2010. Jack, who passed away in February 2019 at the age of 15, was one of five students in his school district to die by suicide in a five-month period.
But no one seemed to speak openly about any of that, Padilla said—or about related topics, including youth mental health, bullying prevention and how to recover from emotional trauma.
“After Jack passed, my wife and our son John and I talked,” he said. “And we said, you know, ‘Jack always had a smile. He was very outgoing. He never really revealed his inner turmoil.’ After his death his friends came to us and said they wanted to help somehow, and we realized in those conversations just how many kids have had some type of trauma in their lives. A friend told us, ‘You have to be willing to share your story.’ So we sat down as a family and made that decision.”
'Rambunctious Teen' with a Complex Life
Jack was a “rambunctious little kid and teen,” Padilla said. He was a lacrosse goalie who started playing at age 5 and jumped from team to team “because he was very, very good.” He was outgoing, and personable, and well-liked, with an easy smile.
Jack’s life wasn’t without struggles, his dad said. He was diagnosed with ADHD, and switched schools in fifth grade after being bullied in person and on social media—but he was compassionate and brave and a generally happy kid.
But his life was more complex than his family knew, Padilla said. After Jack’s death, his parents went through his phone and found death threats on social media and via text, including one message, sent the day before Jack attempted to take his life, encouraging him to acquire specific supplies to do so.
Cherry Creek School District said at the time they had not received reports of bullying until after Jack died, and agreed to cooperate with an investigation by the local police department. The three-month investigation concluded that there was no evidence that “anyone acted with criminal culpability,” The Denver Post reported.
“And my response was, ‘That’s fine,’” Padilla said. “‘I respect the process. So I’ll push something through legislatively.’”
A Robust Advocacy Plan
Padilla’s advocacy began at home, in conversations with his wife Jeanine and older son John. Those talks expanded in the months after Jack’s death, when his friends contacted the family to ask how they could help.
“We invited them over to the house,” Padilla said. “And they came up with 11 things they wanted to accomplish.”
The list ranged from emotional tributes—having Jack’s brother John coach his lacrosse team, something Jack had always wanted—to organized walkouts, marches and plans to testify in favor of legislation that supported youth mental health initiatives. Padilla, then on leave from his job as Denver’s housing director, noticed that the city didn’t have programming in place to address behavioral health or suicide prevention. So when he came back to work, he took on a new role: suicide prevention administrator.
The city has since developed a strategic plan to reduce stigma surrounding mental health and make treatment more accessible for residents. Padilla helped launch a YouTube series featuring teens sharing their struggles with mental health and trauma, and is in the process of organizing a mental health and wellness summit “for youth and by youth,” scheduled to take place this fall in Denver.
Planning for the event began last year, when the city offered $5 gift cards to teenagers in exchange for completing a survey about their familiarity with, and interest in, various mental and behavioral health topics (choices ranges from eating disorders and substance abuse to social media, bullying and trauma). Officials had intended to leave the survey open for an entire month, Padilla said, but received more than 2,400 responses in the first 10 days.
Though suicide prevention is his main focus, Padilla’s work is broad—because it has to be, he said.
“As I’ve learned, suicide is an extremely complex issue, whether it’s adults or youth. Jack did not take his life just because he was bullied,” he said. “And there really are no comprehensive best practices in place that are inclusive of an entire community. Denver looks at it probably differently than a lot of other cities do, in that we look at this as violence. It’s either external—assault—or it’s internal—self-harm. But it’s all youth violence.”
Expanding Bullying Legislation
Padilla’s legislative advocacy began months after Jack’s death, when he testified in support of a bill to allow children as young as 12 to see a therapist without parental consent. He generally supports any legislation that increases minors’ access to mental health resources, including a policy introduced last year to excuse school absences related to behavioral health and another, under consideration, that would create a temporary youth mental health program to provide free counseling for teens who are reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic.
But this year’s bill, requiring that parents of bullied students have input into the state’s updated prevention policy, is his biggest effort yet. Padilla worked with state Rep. Lisa Cutter, Rep. Mary Young and Sen. Don Coram on the legislation.
In addition to giving a voice to people affected by bullying, the legislation also updates the state’s disciplinary codes to include specific markers for bullying. (For now, the closest identifier is “detrimental behavior,” said Young, a former educator.). It would also require that school districts “incorporate the approaches, policies and practices” outlined in the state’s policy, a stricter requirement than the current law, which simply requires that schools have some sort of policy in place.
The Colorado House passed the bill 57-6 in late April, with an amendment removing a provision that would have made bullying grounds for suspension or expulsion from public schools. Cutter said that adjustment was made with an eye toward being “more constructive in the way we’re helping kids,” noting that schools have the option to remove students for extreme behaviors.
Padilla agreed. “What was and is important to me is, whether a kid is called a bully or is bullied, they both need help,” he said. “Suspending or expelling a kid doesn’t address the root issue.”
The legislation passed its second reading in the Senate on Tuesday. If it passes its third reading with no amendments, it will head to Gov. Jared Polis, who has previously supported Padilla’s work.
Not that Padilla necessarily views it as a job.
“This is a purpose,” he said. “I get these nice accolades but my response is always just—I’m a dad, I don’t know what else to do. I’ve lost the greatest thing I can lose. So if I can save a life, that’s what matters to me.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.