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Proposed bill urges suicide assessment in student discipline

Legislation would create new requirement for schools when considering expulsion for substance abuse

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."

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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."

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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:

Resources: How to help those in crisis

Guest opinion: How to help those in crisis

Q&A about mental health: Local experts offer their advice, guidance

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Proposed bill urges suicide assessment in student discipline

Legislation would create new requirement for schools when considering expulsion for substance abuse

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Mon, May 1, 2017, 11:25 am

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:

Resources: How to help those in crisis

Guest opinion: How to help those in crisis

Q&A about mental health: Local experts offer their advice, guidance

Comments

Good luck
Greene Middle School
on May 1, 2017 at 4:03 pm
Good luck, Greene Middle School
on May 1, 2017 at 4:03 pm

So, basically, this means another tax?

How can we be sure that the school district won't steal from this fund, since they are currently light by several million dollars!


Sharron
Midtown
on May 1, 2017 at 4:42 pm
Sharron, Midtown
on May 1, 2017 at 4:42 pm

This is a wide open door for: Use/Abuse/Sell...then claim that you are depressed. Absurd.

Stay with 'zero tolerance'...it is the only way to hold the line.


Parent
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2017 at 5:30 pm
Parent, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 1, 2017 at 5:30 pm

I think required therapy and drug testing is a much better approach, regardless of whether or not they are suicidal. Kids who are expelled in Palo Alto get to go to one of 2 alternative schools that the district contracts with, where the kid can make new friends, including even expelled gang members from Mountain View. I don't see how the current approach benefits anyone, ESPECIALLY a kid who might feel depressed or suicidal. I am happy to see Marc Berman start to take things in the right direction. Thank you Marc, for doing the right thing.


Ineffective
Gunn High School
on May 2, 2017 at 6:59 am
Ineffective, Gunn High School
on May 2, 2017 at 6:59 am

You can do better Marc Berman. There are so many state problems you are supposed to solve, yet you try to gain a headline with this. Leave running the schools to Melissa Baten Caswell.


Priorities
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2017 at 8:23 am
Priorities, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 2, 2017 at 8:23 am

I think this kind of issue can and should be taken care of through education of both the public and school administrators, not more rules. School districts already have so many impossible to enforce rules that only rich people can afford to enforce with lawyers, where possible at all.

Berman should have done his homework that the state is trying to move toward fewer mandates on schools. Is this really a major problem in need of a law? What efforts have been made to educate the public and California administrators about the issue so far? What boilerplate policies has the CA Board provided for the easy adoption of school boards that would make a law unnecessary, and give locals the ability to take a healthier approach with confidence? Running school districts from Sacramento with lots of micromanaging laws is ungainly. The lack of school nurses or any kind of ombudsperson with power outside the district are far more pressing issues in need of legislative attention.


stanhutchings
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on May 2, 2017 at 12:11 pm
stanhutchings, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on May 2, 2017 at 12:11 pm

In the 1990s, when my kids were in middle and high school, we found out our kids were being offered drugs (usually pot, but also stronger ones) on campus, off campus, everywhere. My wife and I recommended random drug testing on a frequent basis. That would be the way to discourage use before it even starts; or catch it at an early stage, hopefully in time for successful intervention. The objections to our recommendation were by parents and staff, who insisted privacy would be violated. So the drug problems continued, and are still a problem today. I would recommend staff be subjected to the same frequency of random testing, the suppliers were not always fellow students. "a stitch in time saves nine" and "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure"
The company I worked for had random drug testing, and I believe it was effective in preventing drug use. Parents who are concerned about their kids' drug use should buy kits from drugstores, or order online, that will detect up to 12 of the commonly abused substances. Then perform random drug testing, and also after "big weekends".


Resident
Mayfield
on May 2, 2017 at 1:06 pm
Resident, Mayfield
on May 2, 2017 at 1:06 pm

@stan - the schools can't legally random test students, except for those in competitive extra-curricular activities (Pottawatomie County v. Earls, 2002).


Speaking of Ineffective
Midtown
on May 2, 2017 at 6:18 pm
Speaking of Ineffective, Midtown
on May 2, 2017 at 6:18 pm

Please do NOT leave running the schools to Melissa Baten Caswell. She is a primary reason why we have a school budget issue.


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