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Hundreds of new California laws concerning everything from plastic straws to police misconduct and the state minimum wage went into effect Jan. 1. From increased access to mental health resources to additional procedures to curb bullying and cyberbullying, the new rules will change the way California schools and school district operate in 2019.

Curriculum changes

Under new provisions of Senate Bill 830, the California Department of Education has until July 1 to develop a list of resources and instructional materials on media literacy, as well as professional development programs for state teachers. Authored by State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and co-authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, the bill cleared the legislature in late August and was approved by Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 17.

Coupled with the meteoric rise in hoax news content and continued growth of social media platforms, Dodd said the bill will help students better evaluate false or misleading news content.

A 2016 study conducted by Stanford University researchers from the college's Graduate School of Education found that more than 80 percent of middle school students could not distinguish between news stories and sponsored content as a native advertisement. A separate study conducted by professors from Stanford and New York universities found that social media referred roughly 40 percent of all visits to 65 popular sites that published fabricated content. During that same period, social medial only drove about 10 percent of visits to the 690 top news sites in the U.S.

Lessons on digital citizenship, defined as the "appropriate, responsible and healthy behavior" for technology and social media use, are included as part of the bill. Language that called for development of a model curriculum in media literacy was ultimately removed before its approval.

Also beginning with the 2019 school year, Assembly Bill 2735 will prohibit school districts from barring English learners from enrolling in courses that are considered part of the standard instructional program, including advanced placement (AP) courses and classes that count toward college entrance requirements (A-G courses), due to language classification.

The bill, authored by Sen. Patrick O'Donnell, D-Long Beach, was unanimously approved by the state legislature before being signed by Brown.

Data reported to the California Department of Education indicates that roughly 1 in 5 students enrolled in the Santa Maria Joint Union High School District during the 2016 school year were classified as English learners. Only 6 percent of English learners who graduated that year met requirements for admission to a University of California or California State University campus, a rate more than three times lower than the overall percentage of students who met the requirements (20.8 percent).

Only English learners who have recently arrived in the United States will be prohibited from enrolling in the courses, according to the bill's language.

Student wellbeing

California schools will be required to implement procedures to prevent bullying and cyberbullying by the end of 2019 after Brown approved a bill backed by numerous civil rights and other advocacy groups. In addition to the new procedures, Assembly Bill 2291, authored by Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, requires school employees who regularly interact with students to have access to a bullying and cyberbullying training module developed by state officials.

Approximately a quarter of ninth- and 11th-grade students at Santa Maria high schools report experiencing any level of harassment or bullying, according to a review of the latest California Healthy Kids Survey results. Only 1 in 5 11th-graders who responded to the survey agree that students, when bullied, inform a teacher about their predicament. About half say that when informed by a student, the teacher will do something to help the situation.

Chiu hopes that equipping educators and school staff with the tools they need to monitor schoolyard and classroom behavior will help curb bullying before it happens.

Two additional bills — Assembly Bill 2022 and Senate Bill 972 — approved this fall by the governor will improve access to mental health services by adding the National Suicide Prevention lifeline phone number to student identification cards and increase the number of clinical professionals at school campuses.

The updated IDs will be available at the start of the 2019 school year, but districts that have a surplus of old cards will be allowed to distribute those until their supply is depleted. Schools will be required to have at least one mental health professional for every 600 pupils by the end of 2021.

Financial barriers

Assembly Bill 1974, which was authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, D-San Diego, and Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, will prohibit schools from taking punitive action against students who are unable to repay debts. Schools will still be allowed to collect debts from parents but withholding grades, transcripts and high school diplomas from students or limiting their participation in clubs, activities, sports or ceremonies will be barred.

Debt owed as a result of vandalism or to cover the cost of replacement supplies or materials that are missing or damaged will still be allowed, according to the law. Foster students and students who are homeless are exempt from the provision.

Gonzalez Fletcher hopes the bill will ease a financial burden on low-income families that do not qualify for relief through school or district fee waivers. 

In an attempt to increase the number of students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and California Dream Act Application (CADAA), all districts with students in ninth- to 12th-grade will be required to provide financial aid information at least once before 12th grade.

Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes, D-Grand Terrace, says Assembly Bill 2015 will improve college enrollment rates by attempting to remove the financial barrier many students face. The California Student Aid Commission estimates only 54 percent of the classes of 2017 and 2018 completed their financial aid applications.

Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga

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Education Reporter

Santa Maria Times reporter Mathew Burciaga covers education for Lee Central Coast Newspapers.