Portantino Bill Would Allow Students Mental-Health Absences

State Sen. Anthony Portantino has introduced a bill in Sacramento that would allow students from elementary through high school to take days off for mental-health or behavioral-health reasons and have those days be considered excused absences.

The bill, SB 849, would reverse the state’s current education code, which does not permit absences for those reasons to fall under the “excused” umbrella.

“As a parent, I try to be sensitive to our school children’s needs as our society changes,’’ said Portantino, whose 25th District includes South Pasadena.

“In particular, mental-health issues are very important to me, as too many of our children grapple with depression, anxiety and other challenges. Excluding these children from having the ability to take time off for their well-being continues a potentially harmful stigma associated with the issue.

“We need to be bringing mental health out of the shadows so our children can get the care they need, not penalizing districts and families for a legitimate health issue.’’

Assembly Members Evan Low and Kansen Chu, both from Northern California, introduced a similar bill in the lower house of the Legislature.

“I am very happy to collaborate with my Assembly colleagues on this very important issue,” said Portantino.

According to Portantino, increasing numbers of school-age children in the state are dealing with depression, anxiety and other forms of behavioral issues — creating serious health risks, including suicide.

His office quoted statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, saying the percentage of children 3-17 who suffer from depression and anxiety has steadily risen, and estimating that some 4.5 million kids in that age range have a diagnosed behavior problem.

It’s not the first time Portantino has addressed issues relating to school-age kids and mental health.

Previously, he wrote a bill requiring that the National Suicide Prevention Hotline telephone number, among other reach-out resources, be printed on all student identification cards. That bill became law on July 1 and kicked in this year as schools were opening for the 2019-2020 academic year.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24. The CDC reported in 2017 that the number of girls 15-19 committing suicide had doubled from 2007 to 2015. The statistics cited show 5.1 suicides per 100,000 in that age group — a 40-year high. The boys suicide rate in that age group climbed 30 percent, to 14.2 per 100,000, in the same time period.

Portantino has also authored SB 328, which would push school start times back for middle schools and high schools in the coming years. His office said that “decades of research” has shown students achieve better health and welfare from increased sleep. Later school start times are also associated with less depression.

As for the new bill, allowing excused absences for mental-health or behavioral-health reasons, Portantino said, “This is a serious problem in the state’s education system that warrants Legislative action because schools don’t recognize these issues as legitimate reasons for being absent.’’

Said Chu, regarding the Assembly version of the bill: “Breaking down stigma around mental health for the next generation is incredibly important. … This is an important step forward to encourage help-seeking and conversations on school campuses about mental health.”

The other Assembly sponsor, Low, added: “Our students need to know that their mental health is just as important as their physical health. This legislation will help to destigmatize discussions of anxiety, depression and treatment so that students experiencing mental health crises feel less alone.”