Schools would get funding to hire mental health specialists

Schools would get funding to hire mental health specialists

(Calif.) As part of the Legislature’s ongoing effort to improve mental health services to K-12 students, lawmakers are considering setting aside $15 million a year to fund a pilot program to help schools hire their own specialists.

AB 254 by Assemblyman Tony Thurmond, D-Richmond, is intended to close gaps in the ‘whole child’ approach to education.

“Given the inextricable relationship between education and health, if the State of California seeks to lead in education we must also focus on the provision of healthcare,” Thurmond said in a statement. “School-based health improves student academic achievement, increases attendance, reduces dropout rates, improves behavior, and promotes parent engagement.”

Concerns over the lack of mental health services that were available to many K-12 students—especially those in low-income neighborhoods—prompted lawmakers five years ago to give local educational agencies authority over funding for diagnostic and intervention services that previously had been managed by county mental health agencies.

But an audit released last year found a continuation of some of the same problems, including a rollback to services in some communities, while others had a backlog of unspent funding.

Last summer, state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, brought two bills forward that sought to remedy the issues. One bill, vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown over costs, would have allowed LEAs to partner with county health agencies in applying for federal funding of screening of early learners. A second bill, signed by the governor, requires LEAs to collect and report on mental health services to K-12 students.

Thurmond’s bill would seem to build on those efforts by specifically addressing the issue of service management. One of the problems found in the audit last year is that many LEAs continued to rely on third-party contractors to actually provide the services.

By giving money to the LEAs to hire their own specialists, schools would not only have full control over their activities, but also would assume the responsibility as well.

There are an estimated 700,000 students–7.5 percent of all school-aged children in California–who have a serious behavioral health disorder, but only 120,000 receive therapy or counseling through formal special educational services.

Thurmond said his bill would cover a wide range of activities including alcohol and substance abuse assessments, crisis intervention, and “referral to a continuum of services including emergency psychiatric care, evidence-based mental health or alcohol and substance abuse treatment services, community support programs, inpatient care, and outpatient programs.”

As proposed, the program would run over four years beginning in 2018-19, utilizing an annual allocation of $15 million drawn from a tax hike on the state’s highest earners approved by voters in 2004.

The bill passed out of the Assembly in May and is currently pending before state Senate policy committees.