By Rose Hoban
After two hearings, a subcommittee dedicated to looking at what mental health supports North Carolina students need to increase school safety is recommending increased staffing to address mental and behavioral health needs in the state’s schools.
But the money to address those problems and hire staff was lacking from their recommendation.
Formed in the wake of the deaths of 17 high school students in Parkland, FL, the House Select Committee on School Safety created two working groups, one to look at mental health issues and the other to consider physical safety changes that could be made to schools.
The Student Health Working Group heard presentations this month that highlighted how most school districts in the state lag behind national recommendations on the numbers of school psychologists, counselors, nurses and social workers.
“The subcommittee finds that the current nationally recommended ratio of students to school psychologists is 1:700, and… the current ratio in North Carolina is 1:1,875,” the final report reads.
Staffing of other health professionals in North Carolina schools also lags behind national standards:
- School counselors: recommended standard one per 250 students; current North Carolina average: one per 350 students.
- School nurses: recommended standard one per 750 students; current North Carolina average: one per 2,315 students.
- School social workers: recommended standard one per 400 students; current North Carolina average: one per 1,427 students.
“There’s a great sense of urgency, both the speaker’s office and the senate president’s office have expressed a great deal of interest in making our schools safer,” said Rep. David Lewis (R-Dunn) after the working group meeting Monday. “I think there is a desire to consider ideas.”
But with their recommendations to the larger committee, the working group didn’t make any recommendations on what kinds of funds should be spent to close these staffing gaps, despite the fact that Gov. Roy Cooper last week called for $40 million to be spent on school support personnel.
Professionals make their case
At Monday’s hearing, Liz Newlin told lawmakers that “School nurses are frequently the front line.”
Newlin, the immediate past president of the School Nurse Association of North Carolina, said that nurses are “able to identify potential violent issues and intervene to diminish the effects of violence on both schoolchildren and communities.”
“Often school nurses are the first to know of an issue,” said Rep Craig Horn (R-TKTK). “Some of that is because kids are more likely to go to a school nurse, ‘My stomach hurts,’ when the real issue is beyond, it’s not a physical issue, it’s an emotional issue.
“They have a really good feel with what’s going on with some of our troubled kids,” he said.
After Newlin’s presentation, Sandra Williams-McGlone from the North Carolina School Social Workers Association noted that those professionals participate in crisis intervention, conflict resolution and work to address children’s mental health needs.
Earlier this month, lawmakers heard from school psychologists, who noted that their overall numbers have shrunk, even as the number of students attending North Carolina schools has increased. Seventeen of the state’s 115 school districts have fewer than one school psychologist on staff, and there are about 75 vacancies statewide.
Right now there are 1,274 licensed school psychologists in the state, but only about 780 of them work in public schools. One problem is that recruiting school psychologists to the state is limited because North Carolina does not accept the national school psychologist credential that is accepted in many other states.
The working group’s first recommendation is that the state move to accept that credential to ease recruitment. The group has already drafted a bill to make that possible.
Focus on mental health
The working group has also prepared draft legislation on creating threat assessment teams which would work to prevent violence by targeting kids who display problematic behavior. The group also recommended the use of peer counseling programs in middle and high schools and suggested $1 million in statewide funding to provide for one-time training and materials grants.
When it came to the big-ticket items, the working group pulled its punches, recommending the state, “should continue to work towards a goal of meeting national recommendations for staffing of student support positions.”
“From what I’m told, we do not yet meet the national standard for school nurses in schools, that costs about $44 million,” Horn said. “I understand that to put a school nurse in every school is somewhere around $75-76 million, and when I say every school, I mean every traditional public school and to put a school nurse in every school is somewhere around $90 million.”
Horn argued that the committee should recommend that the state at least meet the national standard, “for no other reason, it’s the mental health aspect that the school nurses bring to the party.”
But Lewis argued that now was not the time to suggest spending and that funding would be hashed out during the appropriations process.
“What this process is saying is that this working group believes this is a good idea,” he said. “It’s going to start the conversation, there is a process of going through. It is our way of legislating in this General Assembly to pass the policy on issues we think are important and then the budget comes in and we provide the funding for that.”
Lewis got some pushback from minority leader Rep. Darren Jackson (D-Raleigh), who noted that two of the recommendations would require spending by local school districts.
“I just hope we will provide whatever funding is necessary,” he said.