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New suicide prevention bill passes

With many having spoken out about the government’s inability to adequately examine prevalent issues regarding teen depression, Marc Berman — a former Palo Alto city councilman now serving in the California State Assembly — proposed a suicide assessment bill that was passed by the State Assembly Education Committee last week.

Berman’s goal with this bill is to create a more rehabilitative approach for depressed or suicidal students who are using or distributing illicit substances.

This suicide assessment bill, Assembly Bill 1261 (AB 1261), aims to review students’ mental health records and assess whether they are eligible for any types of treatment, instead of merely assigning black–and-white forms of punishment.

AB 1261 is focused on building upon AB 2246, a bill signed last year that requires schools grades seven to 12 to have a suicide prevention policy. With AB 1261 in action groups with high-risk of suicide will be addressed, including youth with substance use disorders.

  Therapists in the Palo Alto nonprofit Children’s Health Council agree that substance abuse in teens can often be caused by underlying depression, anxiety or stress. Illicit drug use is also one of the most frequent risk factors for suicidal behavior. California’s current bills do not have any accommodations for teens dealing with drug use, so many teens who have used drugs often do not feel safe to come forward for help, in fear of being punished instead of being helped.

The proposed bill aims to strengthen the state’s initiative of suicide prevention. While expulsion and suspensions are typically the consequences for a student with drugs, based on an assessment as to whether the student is at risk of suicide a referral to a mental health professional may be the alternative with this bill in action.

For students trying to take advantage of the proposed bill, it does not guarantee immunity to students with mental health issues in possession of drugs. “AB 1261 highlights the nexus between substance use and suicidal behavior and requires schools to take into account that a one-size-fits-all, bright-line rule for discipline of substance use may not be in the best interest of students,” Berman said. While previous versions of the bill required schools to see if the student met the criteria of a student in need of the alternative accommodations, a new revision of the bill only encourages administrators with zero tolerance policies to ask questions before they follow through with immediate punishment.

Palo Alto is the largest driving force in promotion of the bill, as high school students in Paly and Gunn face many struggles with high stress rates, mostly from academics. The Palo Alto school board has approved of the bill, and many former Palo Alto local government officials, such as Berman and former Palo Alto mayor Vic Ojakian, have been gathering support for the bill. These Palo Alto schools will most likely be affected by the bill, which is speculated to prevent student suicides and decrease drug abuse, through these alternate rehabilitations.

Berman’s goal with the bill, as a graduate of Paly, is to prevent more suicide tragedies from occurring in Palo Alto and more broadly in California.

“My biggest hope is that this bill will help prevent these tragedies from occurring… Schools should be asking why substance use is occurring because they may be missing opportunities to refer students to mental health professionals so that they get the help they need, rather than expelling them from school.”

Marc Berman California State Assemblymen

AB 1261 still has time before it is in action “ Right now I am focused on moving this bill through the legislative process and getting it signed by Governor Brown,” Berman said. “AB 1261 will be next heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee which examines the fiscal implications of the bill.”

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