Of Cards and Causes

Last year, California enacted a law requiring schools (public and private) that issue pupil identification cards to students in any of grades 7-12, inclusive, to print the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline telephone number on either side of the cards.  The measure, SB 972, authored by State Senator Anthony Portantino, won passage in both houses of the State Legislature with nary a “no” vote cast.  Alarmed by the soaring incidence of teen suicide – the Centers for Disease Control estimates that suicide rates among those aged 10-19 years rose 56 percent between 2007 and 2016 – and wishing to help safeguard young lives, CAPSO supported the measure.  SB 972’s provisions take effect July 1, 2019.

Now, new legislation introduced in both the California Assembly and Senate, seeks to piggy-back on SB 972 by mandating the addition of additional “hotline” numbers on pupil identification cards.  AB 624, authored by Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel (D. – Encino) would require the inclusion of the National Sexual Assault Hotline and National Domestic Violence Hotline telephone numbers.  The measure originally included a provision requiring the inclusion of a “sexual or reproductive health hotline” telephone number, but the author has agreed to amend the bill so as to make that particular requirement applicable to public schools and institutions of higher education, onlySB 316, suthored by State Senator Susan Rubio, also mandates the inclusion of the National Domestic Violence Hotline telephone number on pupil I.D. cards.

The current legislation gives rise to a difficult question: When does too much of a good thing become counter-productive?  Put yourself in the place of a major donor to, say, a nonprofit organization primarily committed to combating the alarming rise in opioid addiction.  You observe the California Legislature moving bills mandating the inclusion of hotline numbers for suicide prevention, sexual assault, and domestic violence and ask yourself: Why is providing a resource for the prevention and/or treatment of substance abuse any less deserving of the government’s imprimatur?  You ask the staff of the nonprofit you’ve been supporting why they aren’t aggressively seeking “equal billing” on pupil I.D. cards, and offer to help make the case for the mandatory inclusion of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Helpline telephone number.

Who could be critical of such a response?  And who would expect anything less from people with deep and passionate commitments to other worthy causes?  Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of compelling candidates for consideration: eating disorders, human trafficking, bullying and school violence, runaways, tragedy assistance, dating abuse, and more.  And what is a legislator to say when asked why a substance abuse prevention resource is any less worthy of inclusion on a pupil identity card than a domestic violence hotline number?  Should lawmakers respond to such inevitable requests by saying they took numbers on a “first-come-first-served” basis?  Should lawmakers simply continue to add mandated resource contact information until the print on student identification cards becomes too small to read, absent magnification?

It seems to me that this is an occasion wherein members of the Legislature would be doing both themselves and the public a service by holding off on the enactment of any additional hotline/helpline inclusion mandates until such time as they’ve developed a comprehensive policy that can take the place of a piecemeal approach that’s bound to needlessly create winners and losers out of worthy causes that shouldn’t be lobbying at counter purposes.  This is neither a partisan issue, nor one that is insoluble.

A good place to start might be the convening of an informational hearing that’s jointly organized by the respective Assembly and Senate Education Committees.  In advance of such a meeting, staff from the California Department of Education and Department of Public Health could be tasked with cataloging the universe of causes for which age-appropriate resources currently exist, and organizing this body of information in a manner that might permit solutions in which the smallest number of resources would offer suitable intake for the broadest range of health and safety related needs.

I’m not sure whether a hotline exists that’s expressly designed to help well-meaning elected officials fight the compulsion to solve every problem via the enactment of a new law, but in this particular instance, less might truly be more.  Our law makers should take pause from moving bills favoring specific hotlines until such time as the pitfalls of a fragmented approach can be more fully ascertained, and avoided.  It wouldn’t hurt to be less reflexive and more reflective about the matter, and the investment of time and effort required to develop a comprehensive response will likely result in better law and enhanced utilization of resources available to assist young people in need.

Ron Reynolds

(Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the California Association of Private School Organizations.)

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