Senate Bills 14 and 224 are calling for mental health reform in schools as it becomes an increasing concern amongst teens. 

Abigail Manalese

Staff Writer

     New bills in the California Senate were introduced by Senator Anthony Portantino regarding mental health in schools and were discussed on March 10th, 2021. Senate Bill 14 requires the California Department of Education to find and employ an evidence-based training program for a local educational agency to train classified and certificated school employees having direct contact with pupils in youth mental and behavioral health. This bill also allows for students from grade 10 until 12 to receive training on the signs and symptoms of behavioral health disorders and allow for students taking mental health days to be categorized as having an excused absence. 

     Senate Bill 224 requires a comprehensive mental health curriculum to be included at least one time during elementary school, one time during middle school, and one time during high school for students in grades 1-12. This was proposed in hopes of increasing mental health awareness and the seeking of help, while simultaneously reducing the stigma associated with mental health challenges. In proposing and pushing forward these bills, Senator Portantino talked about studies showing that youth mental health has been worsening over the course of the pandemic due to isolation.

     Senator Portantino represents the 25th State Senate district of California (the 210 Freeway from Sunland/Tujunga to Upland). He increased funding for special education and the K-12 Local Control Funding Formula, pushed back school start time for middle and high schools, and is responsible for the placement of the suicide hotline number on the back of student ID cards. Senator Portantino also has two daughters of his own, and commented that he advocates on behalf of student mental health “through the lens of a parent.” This is also a personal fight for Portantino, as he had lost his own brother to suicide.

      There are some fears held by GENup, a student organization invited to talk on the Senate floor, about opposition from teachers.

     Two GENup directors; Léo Corzo-Clark, a senior at Albany High School and Winnie Xu, a junior at Westview High School in San Diego were spearheading the advocacy portion of SB 14 and 224 on the students’ side. Both were also aware of the opposition the bills had come to face.

     “The main point of opposition has been to the requirement that 50% of staff that worked directly [with] the students would need to receive this mental health training. And there are people who would say, ‘Well, the language isn’t clear enough . . . the funding for this would have to come from local districts, or, time spent doing this training on mental health would be taken away from other training that we already do.'” explains Corzo-Clark. 

     Xu spoke on the importance that these bills held for students beyond that of the concerns of the teachers.

     “Teachers saying that they don’t have enough time or funding or resources to partake in this training, it’s just saying that they don’t see this as a big enough issue to set aside funding or create an entirely different program to have personnel partake in this training. At the same time, if SB 14 was to be implemented, it would almost be [like] preemptively intervening to these illnesses before they actually turn into something that’s serious. And if mental holidays were to be implemented, and the staff and the personnel and administration can see how many students are going through something like this.” comments Xu.

     Fortunately, both mental health bills were approved unanimously by the California Senate Committee on Education last Wednesday and are now set to advance to the Senate floor for a general vote. From there, it will need to be passed by the Assembly Education Committee and the Assembly floor, and finally to Governor Gavin Newsom for passage into law. 

     In the meantime, American has been working to destigmatize and assist students suffering from mental health issues. The current health curriculum at American includes portions about mental health, ASB released a destress guide before first semester finals, and the Inclusion Coalition composed of principal Megan Barrington, staff including counselors, and students of different grades are discussing the results of a recently released mental health survey. At the time of publication, administration is also working alongside cultural clubs for proper representation on a website centered around providing mental health resources for students.

Picture of Senator Portantino discussing SB 224 at the Senate Education Committee meeting seated with a mask surrounded by social distancing seats that adhere to COVID-19 regulations. “It is inarguable that we are in the midst of a mental health crisis in California. Even before the pandemic, the rate of students struggling with mental health problems such as depression has steadily risen over the years. Now isolated from their family and friends, students are suffering even more.” commented Portantino according to a press release on his website.

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