Lack of school mental health staff harms students

Written by: Stephanie Perez-Carrillo
Date Posted: March 29, 2019

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) finds that an overwhelming number of K-12 schools across the nation experience scarcity in school-based mental health personnel and a surplus of law enforcement personnel. The report finds that this stark contrast contributes to the over-criminalization of black, Latino and Native American students and harms students who need mental health supports.

During the past 10 years, the suicide rate among children ages 10 to 17 has increased by 70 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adolescent mental health struggles in Colorado are particularly acute; the suicide rate for teens ages 15 to 19 hit a record high in 2017, at 21 deaths by suicide per 100,000 teens in this age group and suicide is the leading cause of death among young people age 10-24 in Colorado.

School mental health counselors, psychologists, nurses and social workers often serve as the first line of defense for students, who see them as trusted adults. The benefits of investing in mental health services are clear. Schools with these services see improved attendance rates, better academic achievement, and higher graduation rates as well as lower rates of suspension, expulsion, and other disciplinary incidents. Data show that the presence of school-based mental health providers not only improves outcomes for students but can also improve overall school safety.

By contrast, there is no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety. Indeed, in many cases, it causes harm and can lead to greater student alienation and a more threatening school climate.

We must prioritize investments that support the mental health and well-being of all students. Strengthening protective factors among young people can help mitigate some of the risk factors associated with school arrests. When students feel more supported and connected to their school and peers, it also acts as a protective factor against school arrests and youth and adolescent suicide.

The Children’s Campaign supports these initiatives in the legislature this session that would provide schools with these kinds of supports:

School Removal for Public Preschool through Second Grade (Lontine & Larson/Priola & Fields)

HB19-1194 would ensure that the standards for suspension and expulsion of young children from school are developmentally appropriate, and that young children are removed from school only to address ongoing safety concerns. The bill does not affect statute governing in-school suspensions or classroom removals. The bill would limit the amount of time for out-of-school suspensions in order to resolve safety threats.

Professional Behavioral Health Services for Schools (Fields/McLachlan & Valdez)

SB19-010 would strengthen the School Health Professionals Grant Program by ensuring that schools can hire behavioral health professionals to provide services that promote student mental health and social-emotional development, prevent behavioral health issues, and train staff and students. The bill also ensures that the grant program supports schools where students are experiencing barriers to behavioral health and where access to behavioral health care providers is limited.

Kindergarten Through Fifth Grade Social and Emotional Health Act (Michaelson Jenet/Fields)

HB19-1017 would create a pilot program to place a behavioral health professional, such as a school social worker or counselor, in each grade, kindergarten through fifth grade, in each school participating in the pilot program. The school social workers may provide a range of important supports and services to students, including school-wide social-emotional supports and skill-building, assistance with accessing public benefits, and referrals to community-based services.

Stephanie Perez-Carrillo

About Stephanie Perez-Carrillo

Stephanie works as a Policy Analyst for the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Prior to joining the Children’s Campaign, she worked as a Public Policy Fellow at The Women’s Foundation of Colorado – where she found her love and passion for policy work. Before diving into the policy world, Stephanie served as a Teach for America Corps Member in South Carolina, teaching high school and middle school math. Early on while obtaining her degree in Marketing from Florida International University, she worked in health care as a Patient Advocate and Unit Secretary. When she is not working, you can typically find her at a coffee shop, hanging out with friends, or engaging in some type of outdoor activity.