Town Hall Panel, Portantino Share ‘Later Start’ Benefits

Photo by Mirjam Swanson / OUTLOOK Experts Linday Schack, Kyla Wahlstrom and Terry Cralle joined state Sen. Anthony Portantino at Pasadena last week at Pasadena City College for a town hall in support of Senate Bill 328, which would require later school start times.
Photo by Mirjam Swanson / OUTLOOK
Experts Linday Schack, Kyla Wahlstrom and Terry Cralle joined state Sen. Anthony Portantino at Pasadena last week at Pasadena City College for a town hall in support of Senate Bill 328, which would require later school start times.

State Sen. Anthony Portantino said he hadn’t considered how much teenagers would benefit from more sleep and later school start times until he read an OpEd in the Los Angeles Times last year on the topic. The piece inspired him to investigate further online, “and the more I learned, the more I thought, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’”
In his new job as Senator of California’s 25th District, Portantino is trying.
In February, Portantino — who lives in La Cañada Flintridge, where he formerly presided as mayor — introduced Senate Bill 328, which would require school districts in the state to start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m. On Wednesday, the bill passed the state Senate Education Committee.
And last Thursday, April 13, he and a panel of experts made their case at a town hall at Pasadena City College.
On average, school days start at 8:07 a.m. in California. Only 21% of the state’s middle-schoolers and high-schoolers begin their school days at 8:30 or later, according to Lisa Lewis, a later-start advocate who penned the piece that piqued Portantino’s attention.
At La Cañada High School, “0” period begins at 6:42 a.m., and with the exception of staff collaboration days, first period starts at 7:45 a.m.
Portantino’s bill cites the American Academy of Pediatrics, which in 2014 stated that insufficient sleep for teenage adolescents poses a public health risk in addition to having an adverse academic effect.
Most of the about 65 people who attended the town hall favored the bill, a few were skeptical, and they all seemed curious about its plausibility of passing — even as they collectively seemed sold on the science of the matter.
Terry Cralle, a certified clinical sleep educator, warned the audience of the potential problems associated with insufficient sleep — or, for teens, what amounts to less than 9¼ hours per night.
She said research has shown that teens’ lack of sleep can be linked to increased stress levels; impaired alertness, mood and health; depression; mental illness; violence; addiction; suicide and car crashes.
“Falling asleep while driving is a near-death and near-homicidal experience,” Cralle said. “And this must be treated seriously.”
“Car crashes are the No. 1 cause of death of teens in the U.S.,” said Kyla Walstrom, a senior research fellow at the University of Minnesota and former school principal. “And if a person is awake for 18.5 hours or more, he has changes in reaction time, braking and using peripheral vision, eye movement and just noticing things.”
But it’s unfair to simply ask teens to go to sleep earlier, said Linda Schack, a medical director at Torrance Memorial Medical Center and mom of two teenage students. She said the natural circadian rhythm and homeostatic system belonging to someone in his or her teens prohibits real sleep until almost 11 p.m.
There’s another misconception, she said, referring to the notion that a sleep-deprived student can simply “make up” missing hours on the weekend. That actually can exacerbate the problem, she said.
“You sleep late on weekends but that messes up your circadian rhythm and then school starts early Monday and you’re all messed up,” Schack said. “And intermittently, one-day-per week or month does not solve the sleep debt problem, either.
“We’ve gotta fix it every single day.”
And in every district, Portantino said.
“When I talk to superintendents, it was those administrators who requested we do it as a statewide mandate, to make sure schedules get coordinated,” he said.
Portantino also said he expected the bill to head to its first policy committee meeting this week, after which he hopes it will advance to the state Assembly and then, potentially, be signed into law in September and October. Even then, he said, there would be an adjustment period; districts would not be required to change their start times for another couple of years.
“Change is hard,” Portantino said. “It’s hard to get a school district of 1,000 or 20,000 students to say, ‘We’re going to change traffic patterns, bus patterns, drop-offs, daycare, all of the logistics.’”
He said he sympathizes with those logistical issues, as well as those tied to labor union contracts and extracurricular, afterschool activities, but he doesn’t think those concerns override the potential health benefits of a later start time.
“It’s almost irresponsible not to respond and not to find a way to overcome all the adult-based logistical arguments,” Portantino said. “Because it’s our kids’ health that’s at stake.”
If the bill passes, California would become the first to enact a statewide mandate dealing with school starting time, although Lewis said Utah and Rhode Island also are considering similar legislation as the national conversation increases around the topic.
“School boards and unions like to have local control, and as a former mayor, I understand that,” Portantino said. “But we also have regulations; we don’t [allow] lead paint because we know lead paint causes a public health risk, and this is also a health issue.”
At Tuesday’s La Cañada Unified School District Governing Board meeting, Superintendent Wendy Sinnette suggested board members consider signing a resolution in support of the bill.
“Given our ‘Challenge Success’ initiative, this could be something [to consider],” Sinnette said. “If you reviewed it and wanted to give me feedback, we could prepare a resolution or not, depending on the board’s input.”

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