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Brown vetoes a bill to make school districts consider ties between zero-tolerance policies and suicide

 (CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / EPA)
(CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON / EPA)

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill Monday that would have required school districts that have zero-tolerance policies toward drugs or alcohol use to hold community-wide conversations on whether expulsions related to substance abuse deter students from seeking help for mental health problems.

Brown said in a statement that he declined to sign the bill because, while he agrees with its goal, "this is a matter more appropriately handled at the local level."

Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) initially proposed the legislation after learning about a suicide cluster in Fresno.  "It’s not to say they were caused by substance abuse, but these students are going through difficult times in their lives," he said in an interview. "They might express that through substance abuse, but that’s not the underlying problem."

The bill points to research cited by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that calls substance abuse one of the biggest risk factors for suicidal behavior.

An earlier version of the bill, in Berman's words, "had more teeth." It would have required districts to conduct a suicide assessment for every student kicked out of school for substance abuse.

But after facing pushback from some groups that had liability concerns, he toned it down to its most recent version: the simple requirement that school boards consider whether the threat of expulsion prevents students from seeking help. Districts might consider referrals to mental health professionals as an alternative to expulsion, the bill said. 

Several groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, California and the California School Boards Assn. supported the measure. The California Department of Finance opposed it because it could have resulted in a state mandate for which school districts could demand reimbursement. 

The bill passed both the Assembly and state Senate with no opposition.

Berman said he was disappointed by Brown's decision, and might try again with another version next session. 

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