Under a proposed state bill being sponsored by a former Palo Alto city councilman, school districts would be required to consider an important question before expelling them for substance abuse: Is the student at risk for suicide?
Assembly Bill 1261, which cleared the state Assembly Education Committee last week, was introduced by Assemblyman Marc Berman this February in the wake of a student suicide cluster in Clovis, California.
Months ago, Berman read a news article that mentioned schools' zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies might deter students in distress who have turned to drinking or using drugs from seeking help.
This coupled with the fact that substance abuse can be a risk factor for suicidal behavior compelled him to draft the proposed bill, Berman said in a recent interview with the Weekly.
"A one-size-fits-all, bright-line rule for discipline of substance abuse isn't in the best interest of our students," he said. "It's really our responsibility as administrators, as policy makers to make sure that we're considering all the different possible causes of why a student did something."
The current draft would require school administrators to consider specific factors, including a student's mental health and/or suicide risk, in determining whether to recommend expulsion when a seventh through 12th grader is caught for possessing, using or selling controlled substances at school or at a school activity off campus or whether "alternative means of correction" could be pursued. Berman said his office hopes that one of those alternatives will include a referral to a mental health professional.
This legislation follows on the heels of Assembly Bill 2246, which was signed into law in the fall and requires all school districts to adopt formal suicide prevention policies.
According to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, alcohol and drug misuse are "second only to depression and other mood disorders as the most frequent risk factors for suicidal behavior," the bill states.
Jennifer Leydecker, a teen therapist with Palo Alto nonprofit Children's Health Council, told the Weekly that adolescents she has treated for substance abuse often have underlying, undiagnosed mental health issues like depression, anxiety, trauma or "significant" environmental/family stress.
"The adolescents with these underlying issues can use substances as coping methods and are sometimes self-medicating to address their symptoms," she told the Weekly. "Across the age span, substance abuse does increase the likelihood of suicide when a significant mental health issue is present, but with adolescents the combination can be more lethal."
However, teen substance abuse is not always a "primary" warning sign for suicide, she said. More visible signs include significant mood swings, withdrawal from friends and activities that they previously enjoyed or expression of dying or feeling worthless or hopeless.
Leydecker was not familiar with the proposed legislation but said that in her experience working with schools, "addressing mental health, and possibly suicide, in any disciplinary action is important." She said local high schools she has worked with have recognized this, recommending mental health services as part of behavior plans for students who are disciplined for substance use.
"In any disciplinary action, there is the hope that the consequence will effect change of some sort, but without understanding why substance use is occurring, the school may be missing a chance at intervention," she added.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention expressed support for the legislation at a hearing last week.
Locally, at least one school district and individual are also publicly supporting the bill. In April, the Palo Alto school board approved a statement in support of AB 1261.
And Vic Ojakian, a former Palo Alto mayor who has become a statewide suicide prevention expert since his college-aged son died by suicide in 2004, has been gathering support for the legislation. He said he has heard anecdotally about the potentially dangerous effects of a "pro forma" expulsion policy.
Also important is that the bill doesn't say students can't be expelled for substance use, but simply directs administrators: "Before you do that, ask questions," Ojakian said.
AB 1261 passed the education committee unanimously on Wednesday. It will now move to the Committee on Appropriations.
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Links below provide more resources where one can receive help: