Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) - A bill that would allow students enrolled in Montana public schools to be excused for mental health reasons is locked in a conference committee fight over an amendment that would require a medical diagnosis to qualify for an excused absence.

Rep. Laurie Bishop, R-Livingston, is the sponsor of House Bill 334. She said during the bill’s first debate in the House in February that giving kids the leeway to manage their own health would help find a remedy to increased rates of mental health issues in school. 

“This is something we can do for free. This is just adding mental health needs as an allowable excuse for K-12 absences. This maintains local control around their absentee policies. It maintains parental rights around whether or not they excuse their child and how they want to manage this.” Bishop said. “It's just a way of destigmatizing this and bringing it into the open so that families can talk openly about that and not feel as though they need to hide that.”

According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Report Survey released by the Office of Public Instruction, rates of depression in Montana’s public schools are at a 30-year high -- 41% of students having experienced hopelessness and depression during the school year. 

The bill passed the House and into the Senate on a 63-to-34 vote. There, Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, successfully amended the bill in March to add the requirement for an official diagnosis. He said the mental health absences would be easy to take advantage of and might not be what’s best for kids in the long run.

“The ball game the night before, they missed the free throw and lost the game and they don't want to go to school the next day. The best thing is get out and live life and keep going. That's what would be outside of this [bill’s scope]. But if they are truly clinically depressed, manic depressive, bipolar, yeah, that would fit,” Keith Regier said. 

The amended bill passed the Senate on a 47-to-3 vote. The House then voted against the amendment and that means the bill was sent to a conference committee designed to find a solution between the House and Senate versions. 

That committee met on Wednesday to debate if the amendment should stay on the bill. Rep. Bishop argued that it shouldn’t.

Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula, agreed with her, and said breaking down the stigma surrounding mental health would encourage Montana’s kids to be open about their problems and seek medical help. 

“There are some who really, really struggle. And if this were included as something that's shared publicly and recognized legally that it would have a positive impact to get people medical diagnosis if need be or to get people help,” O’Brien said.  

Proponents of the amendment said parents already have the right to take their kids out of school. Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, Keith Regier’s daughter, brought up examples from her own childhood to show that kids would take advantage of the absences if there weren’t requirements for them. 

“When I look at the medically diagnosed amendment, I guess I see that as being just that further step of: ‘Is this legit?’ In my world growing up, and I continue to hear this, a mental health day was because we got a great dump of snow and it was sunny out and people were going to go skiing.” Amy Regier said. “So that was their idea of a mental health day, which, you know, I don't disagree that maybe sometimes that needs to happen, but we see this as a free pass under that.”

The conference committee’s vote works differently than a standing committee. Both Senators and Representatives are appointed and instead of simple majority rules, the vote is split between the House and the Senate -- like teams.

There were three team members on both sides and the Senate side unanimously voted to strike the amendment but their efforts were shot down by the House’s Amy Regier and Republican Brandon Ler, who voted to keep the amendment. Both voted against the original bill in the House. 

The bill will now have two possible paths. It can be accepted by the House as it’s amended or the House can reject the amendment and it can be sent back to another conference committee until lawmakers in both houses come to a compromise on the exact wording of the bill. If neither happens, the bill will most likely die.