Sunday, December 5, 2021

School Groups Helping State Rework Mental Health Policy After Complaints

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— State education leaders said Wednesday they are still working to revise a proposed mental health policy for public schools and said it will likely be edited several more times before the State Board of Education votes on it.

The first draft of the policy sparked outcry from charter schools and school boards last month. They objected to some of the guidelines, calling them well-meaning but too burdensome and expensive to implement.

The original draft policy said all public schools should provide mental health training for staff, develop policies for mental health services and create a school mental health assistance team to include, at a minimum, a school social worker, school psychologist, school counselor, school nurse and community mental health provider.

The proposal also called for schools to improve their staffing ratios of licensed counselors, nurses, social workers and others “to align with nationally recognized ratios.”

“That initial policy did come across rather strong,” said Bill Hussey, who authored the policy and serves as director of the Exceptional Children Division for the state education department.

He said the policy was meant to serve as a guide for schools but said it was “mistaken as mandates.”

Hussey has been working with the North Carolina School Boards Association and the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools to rework the language. The two groups joined forces last month to oppose the initial draft of the policy, saying it amounted to an “unfunded mandate.”

The state released a new version of the proposed policy last week, but the school groups weren’t satisfied with all the changes.

“We do continue to have concerns about the policy,” Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the state school boards association, told WRAL News by email last week. “I have shared those with (the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction) and would like to give them a chance to respond before I go on record with them.”

Hussey said he has continued to be in contact with Winner and her group and hopes to find some middle ground.

“(We want to) maintain the integrity of the policy but try to listen to what the concerns were, what the beliefs were … and adjust it appropriately,” he said.

One item Hussey said he would like to keep in the policy is mental health training for all school staff. That drew concerns Wednesday from Amanda Bell, a member of the Rockingham County Board of Education who serves as an advisor on the state board.

“Our schools have ben cut to the bare bones,” she said. “I don’t know who we could possible train” to train the rest of the staff.

Bell said her school district has had to cut school nurses and, in some cases, has social workers covering seven schools at a time. If mental health training becomes a requirement, her school district would have to “cut somewhere else to make this happen.”

“The people are not there,” she said. “(But) this is an admirable effort.”

The training would be offered for free with help from the state Department of Health and Human Services, Hussey explained. But Bell said she still had concerns about a training mandate and outlined the way her district has worked to help students with mental health issues.

“We do not neglect any child in that district if we see there is a need,” she said. “Could we get a waiver?”

Hussey said he had not contemplated waivers.

“Not everyone has taken the initiative that you have,” he said.

Hussey said he is continuing to work on the policy and assured everyone that he heard their concerns.

“We’ll get you a policy I think everyone can live with,” he said.

A 2014 report found that, both nationally and in North Carolina, nearly 1 in 5 students will experience a mental health disorder in any given year. Of those students in North Carolina, 75 percent – or nearly 227,000 students – will not receive treatment.

Suicide was the second leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 24 and, in North Carolina, the total number of youth suicides has doubled in recent years, according to data included in North Carolina’s school mental health initiative.

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