A slew of new laws affecting students’ physical, emotional and behavioral well-being will change how schools operate this year, in ways large and small. The laws regulate basic needs grants for truant students, pesticide use and expulsions for “willfully defiant” behavior, among other issues.

As of Jan. 1:

CalWORKS benefits restored for truants

Families that receive CalWORKS basic needs grants will no longer have their grants reduced if their child is truant.

While all parents of children who fail to attend school regularly are subject to fines and even jail time, families who receive CalWORKS assistance from the state had been additionally penalized for truancy by a reduction in grant funds. Assembly Bill 2382, written by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Gardena, eliminates the “double truancy penalty” on low-income children and families. Families will no longer have to send their child’s attendance data to county CalWORKS offices.

According to a 2012 report from the Los Angeles County School Attendance Task Force, children in poverty are more likely to have poor school attendance because of a lack of “basic health and safety supports.” The average CAlWORKS grant for a family of three is $5.14 per family member per day for heat, food, housing and other expenses, according to an Assembly analysis.

School pesticide plans posted online

Armies of ants and fields of weeds plague school and child care facilities – and a new expansion of the California Healthy Schools Act of 2000 means these facilities must develop the least toxic strategies for combating bugs and weeds. These Integrated Pest Management plans, which had been voluntary before the new expansion of the law, evaluate the use of toxic pesticides and alternatives.

Senate Bill 1405, written by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, also requires schools to publish their pesticide use online, so that parents can be more easily informed. Additionally, by July 2016, school or child care staff members that apply pesticides must complete a training course.

Graphic showing what schools need to do.

Credit: California Department of Pesticide Regulation

The new pesticide law requires schools to develop Integrated Pest Management plans if they use certain pesticides.

According to DeSaulnier, “Highly toxic pesticides are still being used in and around California schools and incidents of toxic pesticide exposure in schools go unreported.”

Schools stock emergency epinephrine

Emergency preparedness at schools now includes stocking at least one dose of epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, to be used in the event of a severe allergic reaction. Senate Bill 1266, written by Sen. Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, also requires that a school employee be trained annually to administer the drug.

Food allergies have become increasingly common among children, and many students with allergies carry a prescription auto-injector of epinephrine to counteract anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that may include difficulty breathing. But many students don’t know they’re allergic until they have a reaction. Nearly one in four students who received an emergency injection of epinephrine at school had no known serious allergies, according to a 2005 study published in Pediatrics.

To increase preparedness, the new law requires schools to obtain an epinephrine prescription in the name of the school or district, rather than a specific person. The California School Nurses Organization, a professional group, has released a training package about the law. Free injectors are available for K-12 schools in California and nationwide through EpiPen4Schools, a program of the Pennsylvania-based Mylan Specialty, which distributes the EpiPen brand injector.

Students to be screened for near vision

Screening of student vision is mandatory in California schools and a new law, Senate Bill 1172, authored by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, adds the requirement that a student’s near vision be tested, in addition to far vision. The law also makes plain that vision screening, which is conducted by school nurses or other trained personnel, is required in kindergarten, or when a student first enters a school district, and in 2nd, 5th and 8th grades.

Research has shown that the consequences of impaired vision are far-reaching for students, including underachievement, disengagement and behavior problems. But the new law doesn’t address the crux of a major children’s health conundrum: ensuring that students who fail the vision test actually get eyeglasses. That is a need that some schools and nonprofit organizations are collaborating on to fill.

“Willful defiance” expulsions are out

Positive approaches to managing student behavior could receive more attention this year as schools are no longer allowed to cite “willful defiance,” defined as the disruption of school activities and defiance of authority, as a reason to expel students in K-12. The category may still be used as a reason to suspend students in grades 4-12, but not students in grades K-3.

Assembly Bill 420, written by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, leaves intact other reasons for expelling or suspending students, including physically injuring others, committing an obscene act, or physical or verbal bullying.

While the new law does not require schools to examine how staff members address student conflicts, the law coincides with a new requirement that schools collect data showing that they are improving school climate and culture by reducing suspensions and expulsions, according to the new state education finance system, the Local Control Funding Formula. In the 2014-15 school year, the majority of the 50 largest school districts included programs in their Local Control and Accountability Plans that emphasize connecting with troubled students or offering them a chance to make amends, rather than taking more punitive actions.

Mandatory training to recognize child abuse

To help protect children, a new law requires all school employees to be trained annually in how to recognize and report suspected child abuse and neglect. Employees must be trained in the first six weeks of the school year or within six weeks of employment.

School employees are “mandated” reporters of possible abuse and neglect; failure to report is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. But until the enactment of Assembly Bill 1432, written by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, schools were not required to train employees on how to spot the signs of possible abuse and neglect.

Gatto said the lack of training was of particular concern in cases where other school employees are suspected of abusing students. A 2014 federal report found that nationwide, K-12 schools are doing a poor job of preventing and reporting educator sexual abuse of students.

Full-contact football practices restricted

Football and concussions are increasingly mentioned in the same breath. To address concerns about the health ramifications of head injuries, a new law requires that full-contact football practices at high schools and middle schools be no longer than 90 minutes, no more than twice a week and only during the football season, not the off-season.

Assembly Bill 2127, written by Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, also restricts concussed students from play for at least seven days. During that time, students are to complete a graduated “return-to-play” protocol of at least seven days that slowly increases activity levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a return-to-play protocol here.

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