Emphasis on academic standards testing in Colorado K-12 schools has placed great pressure on the support structure needed to identify students with mental health issues, according to Colorado Department of Education Exceptional Student Services Unit Interim Assistant Commissioner Randy Boyer.
According to Boyer, a major factor affecting school safety in Colorado schools is that teachers and staff are so busy meeting test assessment requirements that they have less time to forge teacher/student relationships.
“Relations are critical, because students these days are harboring issues that they don’t know how to deal with,” said Boyer. “Teachers need the time to build those relationships and direct students to the mental health resources that are available, but they’re so busy (with the metrics) that mental health issues are going undetected. In some cases students are underserved — so much so that I’m thankful there haven’t been more violent incidents in schools than we’ve already had.”
The Colorado Legislature has yet to introduce bills this session dealing with supplemental or increased funding for mental health initiatives and staffing in K-12 schools. Mental-health professionals testified before a state legislative committee in January and underscored the need for increasing the ratio of school counselors and school psychologists. The National Association of Boards of Education recommends 250 students per counselor, 400 students per social worker and 1,000 students for every psychologist.
“Although the recommended ratio is 1 psychologist per 1,000 students, structures around counselors and school psychologists have changed,” said Boyer. “School psychologists used to do nothing but assessments of students and, even now, the job description for school psychologists isn’t well defined.”
Federal funding on the way
Federal funding initiatives designed to address mental health issues in schools were announced in January by U.S. Department of Education Office of Safe and Healthy Students Director David Esquith during a presentation at the Center For School Mental Health at the University of Maryland.
Part of the “Now is the Time” initiative initiated by the Obama Administration after the Sandy Hook school shooting, Esquith said that Federal guidelines are being established “so that every school should have an emergency management plan, a safe and positive climate, and we’re making sure students get treatment for mental health issues.”
Grants will be available starting this spring, including $15 million for “Mental Health First Aid” training for teachers and $50 million for training for 5,000 additional health professionals to serve students and young adults.
“We’re looking at adding 1,000 resource officers and school counselors across the nation, and allowing school districts to choose what type of support they need, whether resource officer or mental health professional,” said Esquith.
Poudre SD ahead of curve
According to Poudre School District’s Melanie Voegeli-Morris, coordinator of the Mental Health Services team, the district’s been ahead of the curve in helping identify and counsel students with mental-health issues. There are about 27,000 students in the district’s 50 schools. Initially funded by grants, the team is now fully funded through the district’s general fund.
The Mental Health Services team consists of nine mental-health specialists and one student safety coordinator. Members of the team include licensed clinical social workers and most have school counseling backgrounds. They provide mental health services to all K-12 sites in Poudre School District, where they support school counselors, help manage crisis situations and work with families of students who need mental-health services.
“Kids have traditionally had a code of silence and kept conflict and signs of danger to themselves. But with the recent school shootings, more kids are taking it a step further, ” said Voegeli-Morris. “They’re saying to themselves ‘This is too big of a thing to keep to ourselves — I’ve got to find a trusted adult.”
“The Mental Health Services team has found an increase in need for younger kids who are presenting with emotional issues,” said Voegeli-Morris. “We’re training every teacher, administrator, school counselor and staff member to recognize that some students do need a trusted adult. The goal is to recognize a student is in need and know where to refer students who need help, which might even include home visitations by our staff.”
Poudre School District also offers bullying and suicide prevention and partners with community mental health organizations. Mental health referrals come from teachers, parents, counselors, administrators and sometimes kids.
“Our school district and board have gotten behind this, as have the teachers and staff. It takes all of us together,” said Voegeli-Morris. “We want to make it physically and emotionally safe for every student to learn.”