Portantino Education Bills Head to Governor’s Desk

Senate bills 14 and 224, authored by State Senator Anthony J. Portantino, were approved by the legislature with strong bipartisan support and are headed to the governor’s desk. SB 14 and 224 address the growing mental health crisis among California’s youth by implementing mental health education and training in schools.

“As students return to school this month, families, teachers and school administrators are faced with mental health challenges,” stated Portantino. “California is in the midst of a youth behavioral health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of distance education has increased isolation and disengagement. Depression symptoms and other behavioral health concerns are at an all-time high. Although the bills don’t go nearly as far as they should and are not what I hoped would be sent to the governor, I am pleased to be making these important steps to help our students in need.”

According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, nearly one in three California high school students surveyed reported feeling sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks in a row. Nearly one in five reported that they have seriously considered attempting suicide.

SB 14 ensures that student absences for behavioral health concerns are treated the same as excused absences for physical health concerns. In addition to expanding excused absences for students, SB 14 requires the California Dept. of Education to recommend best practices and evidence-based mental health trainings to address youth behavioral health, including training for teachers, staff and students on how to recognize, appropriately respond and seek help for mental health concerns.

The measure is sponsored by a coalition of behavioral health professionals and mental health.

“The California Council of Community Behavioral Health Agencies (CBHA) and our coalition partners applaud the California legislature for passing SB 14 authored by Senator Anthony Portantino,” said Dr. Le Ondra Clark Harvey, CBHA’s chief executive officer. “As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, youth behavioral health needs to be a primary focus to protect and promote the well-being of our students. While this legislation provides a blueprint for training teachers and students with vital knowledge and skills needed to support their students and peers who are experiencing a behavioral health challenge, the work is not done. CBHA looks forward to continuing to work with our elected leaders to equip our school communities with the tools needed to destigmatize behavioral health care and create supportive learning environments critical to our students’ ability to lead healthy and happy lives.”

SB 224 would require that local educational agencies and charter schools that currently offer one or more courses in health education to middle or high school students also include mental health content in those courses. Educational topics would include but are not limited to the overarching themes and core principles of mental health. SB 224 would also require that the California Dept. of Education develop a plan to expand mental health instruction in California public schools on or before Jan. 1, 2024.

The measure is supported by a coalition of mental health advocates.

“The National Alliance on Mental Illness-California strongly urges Governor Newsom to sign into law Senate Bill 224,” said Jessica Cruz, CEO of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Every week, we learn more about the toll that the pandemic has taken on our youth. As the Little Hoover Commission pointed out in [its] recent report on COVID-19 and Children’s Mental Health, in order to address COVID’s impact on children’s mental health, California needs to center schools as hubs of mental well-being. SB 224 will serve as the map that our children can use to navigate these hubs and access the help that they need. The governor, who has always offered compassion and support to those who live with a mental illness or developmental disability, will advance the needs of children’s mental health with implementing this new law.”

SB 14 and SB 224 were introduced earlier this year and reflect Portantino’s dedication to improving mental health outcomes for youth. The senator previously authored SB 972, which required schools to print the suicide hotline on student identification cards. Additionally, he dedicated three years to pass SB 328, which pushes back school start times for middle and high schools.