Pa. task force stresses improving access to mental health services in schools

A task force commissioned in the aftermath of the Parkland mass shooting calls for better communication about potential threats

By J.D. Prose
Beaver County Times

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A task force commissioned by Gov. Wolf in the aftermath of February's mass shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school calls on school officials and students— and, when necessary, police—to better communicate with each other about potential threats, and urges schools to step up mental-health services, including adding psychologists and nurses.

Released just as more than 1.7 million students are starting a new year in Pennsylvania public schools, the report from the Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force—co-chaired by Wolf, who is seeking re-election in November, and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale—is light on specifics but identifies a number of broad strategies aimed at addressing students' fears about mass shootings as well as bullying, other types of violence, and depression.

DePasquale, citing testimony from six hearings held around the state this spring with students, educators, and other stakeholders, said in a statement that "young men and women stood before us and described their feelings of helplessness and anxiety, that they want more and better mental health services. Now, it is our job to heed those concerns, and to do everything in our power to create safer spaces for learning."

Although no money or specific mandates were attached to Monday's report, Wolf noted that the 2018-19 state budget included a $60 million initiative to issue grants to districts across the state—as determined by a new state committee—that would help pay for new safety measures, such as updating buildings, training teachers, or establishing community violence-prevention programs.

"It's abundantly clear that by working together, schools, communities, and the state can take a holistic approach to make our classrooms a safe place for students to learn," Wolf said in a statement. "Our focus is on preventing violence that threatens schools, while also taking every precaution to protect and provide security for students and teachers."

Most of the report's findings are recommendations for improving the overall climate in schools—including a stronger emphasis on teaching kids social and emotional learning strategies beginning in the early grades so that they can better cope with bullying, depression, and other factors that have been linked to a spate of school shootings. The attack in Florida killed 17 people.

The 66-page report painted a rather dim portrait of student happiness in Pennsylvania. It said surveys have found that more kids are reporting they've been bullied—28.2 percent in the most recent school year, up from 16.9 percent in 2015—and that 38.1 percent reported feeling sad or depressed most days, with 16.5 percent saying they had seriously considered suicide.

Only 41.3 percent of Pennsylvania children say they enjoy being in school, and the numbers for high school kids are closer to just one-third.

Among the report's 31 actionable findings is a call for multidisciplinary task forces aimed at doing a better job in both identifying potential safety threats and sharing information, while creating a climate where students feel more comfortable sharing information with teachers and staff.

"Individuals reported the more consistent information-sharing would allow stakeholders to 'connect the dots' before an incident occurs," the report stated, although it noted that privacy concerns remain a major issue.

The report suggested that these multidisciplinary teams could involve teachers, administrators, other staff, students, parents, law enforcement officers, and first responders.

"We need guidance counselors and officers and just people communicating with the kids and getting involved with the students," said the report, quoting a high school student identified as Rhiya G. The task force also called for more venues for kids to talk about bullying.

The task force noted that Pennsylvania falls short on the recommended levels of school nurses, psychologists, and school social workers. For example, while school nurses are often on the front lines of identifying safety threats, there is only one school nurse for every 809 students in the state's public schools. The National Association of School Nurses recommends a 750-1 ratio.

The report calls for increased staffing in these areas but comes with no dollars attached. For much of his 3 1/2 years as governor, Wolf, a Democrat, has clashed with Republican-led proposals to increase statewide education funding.

Robin Roberts, director of Parents United for Public Education, a Philadelphia school advocacy group, said she was glad the report addressed the need for more mental health services but called it "an unfunded mandate." She called on the district to stop outsourcing mental health programs and institute its own district-wide services.

While Philadelphia hasn't experienced mass school shootings, she said, bullying is a problem, and more counselors and school nurses and community engagement could be more effective than other security measures.

"We are having active-shooter drills," she said. "They're not going to save a single soul; they're simply not. You can go in a school with all of their front-door security and get to a place with children."

Copyright 2018 Beaver County Times

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