Congress should avoid swiftly creating new student mental health programs in the rush to respond to the Uvalde, Texas, school shootings, a group of education-related organizations said.
Instead, lawmakers can strengthen and boost funding for an array of existing federal grants and other efforts launched after previous school shootings and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.
“Undoubtedly, increasing access to comprehensive mental and behavioral health services, both in communities and in schools, is of paramount importance,” said a consensus statement released Wednesday by 17 education organizations.
Signers of the document, which also pressed for new gun regulations, include both national teachers’ unions and groups representing school principals, school psychologists, rural and urban school systems, and district administrators.
Creating new programs—often lawmakers’ response to headline-grabbing tragedies— could lead to delays in getting needed funding to schools as federal agencies complete the often lengthy process of writing regulations and determining how to distribute new grants, said Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for the AASA, the School Superintendents Association, an organization that signed onto the statement.
“We would rather not use this crisis as an opportunity to experiment in new ways ... when we believe there are existing funding models to really move the ball forward,” Pudelski said.
The groups called for three existing programs to receive “significant and targeted funding.”
- The $11 million Mental Health Service Professionals Demonstration Grant Program, which provides competitive grants to fund cooperative programs that help train new school-based mental health providers.
- The $10 million School Based Mental Health Services Grant program, a competitive grant program that provides funding to seven states to build the pipeline of school mental health personnel.
- The STOP School Violence Act, passed after the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., a package of grant programs administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. It provides funding for school police and security practices and hardware, and it also supports efforts centered on prevention, school climate, and nurturing students’ mental and emotional well-being.
Lawmakers often raise mental health as a concern after school shootings. And the events often draw interest from lawmakers who are not on House and Senate health and education committees and may be less familiar with ongoing work and research. But there is ongoing work in the Senate health and education committee to draft bipartisan legislation that would address longer-term issues with mental health in schools and communities, Pudelski noted.
The education groups that signed the consensus statement this week called on lawmakers to support those existing efforts, which would address youth mental health concerns by “building the pipeline of mental health personnel in schools, expanding access to Medicaid-reimbursable mental and behavioral health services in schools, and expanding collaboration and coordination between the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services in their work with schools and school-based providers.”
Mental health and school safety
Beyond focusing on more narrow concerns about potential violence, educators have sounded the alarm about student mental health in general, even before the pandemic.
Experts on gun violence say diagnosed mental health conditions aren’t predictors of a possible attack, and they’ve urged caution so that students don’t feel a stigma in seeking help for issues like depression and anxiety.
But research conducted by federal agencies like the U.S. Secret Service has found that school shooters often “leak” their intentions beforehand, sharing their plans for violence as a cry for help. Students need to see schools as safe and welcoming places where they feel comfortable sharing concerns, experts have said, and schools need to be equipped to address students’ needs as they arise.
While the unprecedented surge of K-12 COVID-19 aid provided by the American Rescue Plan can be spent to hire new school counselors, support staff, and psychiatrists, district administrators have said they will not be able to sustain many of those programs after the time-limited funding runs out. Schools are required to obligate the money by 2024.
And the problems schools face aren’t just financial. Even with the resources to hire needed counselors and social workers, many have struggled to find candidates for those positions, Pudelski said. That suggests that longer-term funding and bigger-picture priorities, like strengthening the pipeline of school mental health workers through recruitment and training, is necessary to address issues in the longer term.
‘Schools alone cannot bear the full burden’
The education groups that signed the statement led with a call to action on guns.
“Schools and educators alone cannot bear the full burden of addressing the public health crisis of gun violence,” they wrote. “The answer to stopping gun violence in our schools is not to arm our educators or to focus solely on better addressing the mental health crisis.”
They called for legislation that would: “Prevent access to dangerous weapons by those deemed at risk of hurting themselves or others, expand background checks for all gun purchasers, and increase investments for rigorous gun-violence prevention research.”
Some of those recommendations mirror elements of bills passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week. Those bills face strong headwinds in the Senate, where the Democratic majority needs to win support from at least 10 Republicans to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to override a filibuster.