The California legislature may prevent K-12 schools from suspending or expelling students who are drunk or high, or in possession of illicit drugs or alcohol.
The proposed ban is outlined in Assembly Bill 599, from Democratic Assemblymember Chris Ward. The Education Committee approved AB 599 last week unanimously; it now heads to the Appropriations Committee.
The bill argued that students shouldn’t be expelled or suspended for being drunk or high because “high feelings of school connectedness can decrease drug use” — indicating that students should remain in that school environment, rather than being forced out, in order to prevent further drug or alcohol use.
Ward characterized this ban as a “public health approach” in the bill language.
The bill would also require the California Department of Education to create a model policy by July 1, 2025 for addressing students in possession of and using illicit drugs on school property. A similar policymaking requirement would be imposed on local educational agencies, who would also have to provide resources for education, treatment, or support for substance abuse.
Ward also replaced language in the bill referring to “he” or “she” with gender-neutral terms, like “the principal” or “the superintendent.”
The California State Assembly advanced AB 599 out of the Education Committee last week. At the committee hearing, Ward stated that suspensions and expulsions for substance abuse played a role in reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline. Ward further commented that his bill would result in a “more humane” approach to handling problematic students.
Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, chair of the Education Committee and a former school board member, asked how to measure the effectiveness of zero-tolerance policies on drugs and alcohol in schools.
Nora Lynn — the associate director of a public policy organization that co-authored the bill, Children Now — didn’t offer specific measurement criteria but claimed that the results of a zero-tolerance policy impact outweighed deterrence.
“We would just point to the very strongly disproportionate impacts on youth of color, young boys of color, and we feel like that far outweighs whatever deterrence there may be,” said Lynn.
Muratsuchi challenged Lynn’s response, noting that she hadn’t provided any measurement criteria. Ward then stated that comparative data to prove his bill’s effectiveness would be available following the bill’s implementation. It appeared that Ward’s answer didn’t satisfy Muratsuchi.
“I would appreciate that our policy decisions be data-driven rather than based on impressions or anecdotes,” said Muratsuchi.
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Lynn had also argued that suspensions and expulsions weren’t the appropriate response for drug infractions.
“This practice ostracizes students, reduces school connectedness, and increases the likelihood of drug use among disconnected students,” said Lynn.
Several other organizations co-authored the bill: the California Alliance of Child and Family Services (CACFS), California Youth Empowerment Network (CAYEN), and California Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (CALACAP).
CAYEN representative Danny Thirakul argued that minors’ “lived experiences” should dictate policy, and that punitive measures for alcohol or drug use was dangerous. Thirakul further argued that the response should be to have mental health professionals try and understand why the youth are using the substances.
“[Youth] want opportunities to safely evaluate their behaviors and make positive changes for themselves rather than being criminalized in a world where youth are experiencing a well-documented mental health crisis and opioid crisis,” said Thirakul.
#AB599(@AsmChrisWard), our co-sponsored bill with @ChildrenNow,@_CAYEN_, & CalACAP, has passed out of the Asm Ed. Committee today! #CaLeg
This critical bill would promote a public health approach in schools to #SUD among our youth, instead of an expulsion or suspension. pic.twitter.com/iMs7xKDVih
— California Alliance of Child and Family Services (@CaAllianceKIDS) March 22, 2023
Others who signaled support for the bill included the American Lung Association, the California Alliance, AspiraNet California Coalition For Youth, and Mental Health America of California.
None spoke in opposition to the bill during the hearing.
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