State seeks to increase funding for mental health in schools

Wyoming school districts could see a windfall in the next two years to support mental health services for K-12 students, but a new $11.5 million program is facing hurdles in the state Legislature.

Under the program proposed by the Joint Committee on Education, each Wyoming school district can request up to $120,000 per year for the next two school years to support mental health services. Those grants are roughly enough to cover the salary and benefits of one full-time mental health professional for each district, Matthew Willmarth, a senior school finance analyst with the Office of Legislative Service, told the education committee during its meeting on the 15th. of November.

School districts must apply to the Wyoming Department of Education detailing their need and plans for the money. The Department of Education will award the grants and school districts will be required to report to the state the number of students served and the impact of mental health services.

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Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, the incoming House speaker, led the push to establish the program after hearing from local school districts about the need for more mental health services.

“We have heard more and more stories of [the] student mental health needs. And when I talk to my own districts, they’re putting mental health programs together,” Sommers told the education committee in November.

The most recent data from the CDC shows that 2.5% of students nationwide attempted suicide and required medical treatment in 2019, and about 1 in 5 US students said they seriously considered trying.

Although the grants are sufficient to fund the hiring of an additional mental health professional, school districts are not constrained by the grants, allowing them to contract with local mental health providers or seek other methods to support student mental health Sommers said.

The intent of the program is to help school districts expand mental health services, but another goal is to use reports from districts to identify the need for mental health services in schools and their effectiveness, he said. The program ends just before the 2025 recalibration cycle, when the Legislature will reconsider funding for schools.

It also comes as Wyoming increasingly focuses on the role of schools in providing mental health care.

Governor Mark Gordon’s Reimagining and Innovating Education Delivery (RIDE) advisory group released its final report last week after a month-long public comment process. Along with their recommendation to tailor education to each student, the group suggested strengthening mental health supports in schools.

“Having more capacity would benefit students, whose mental health needs would be more likely to be met; it would also benefit teachers, who simply lack the bandwidth to serve as counselors for all of their students,” the group wrote.

Educational groups and school leaders have applauded Sommers’ proposed mental health funding and expansion of services.

“Funding is essential to give students access to the highly-skilled, trained professionals we need to serve students’ mental health needs,” Grady Hutcherson, president of the Wyoming Education Association, told the Star-Tribune in an email.

“For too many students, schools are their main, or only, source of mental health, nutrition, and even safety,” Hutcherson said. “…Children cannot learn if they are hungry. They cannot know if they are being abused or bullied. They cannot learn if they are contemplating suicide. Schools play an invaluable role in ensuring students’ most basic needs are met so they can focus on learning.”

For small school districts, the funding could be particularly impactful.

Sheridan County School District No. 3, which covers the eastern third of Sheridan County and serves approximately 90 students, does not have a dedicated mental health professional, school resource officer, nurse, psychologist, or health worker. social, said Chase Christensen, the district’s superintendent. the education committee.

The additional mental health funding would allow the district to close some of those staffing gaps, Christensen said.

But the funding structure, in which each school district can access the same $120,000 in funding regardless of its size, is a point of contention. Some Wyoming school districts serve fewer than 100 students, while others educate thousands.

State Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, voted against the program. As it currently stands, the program is likely to fail during the next legislative session, he said.

“If it came to the Senate the way it is now, I would take steps to make sure it didn’t pass,” Scott said. “It’s just not fair to the larger districts.”

Scott also takes issue with the vision of adding additional mental health professionals in schools, pointing instead to community mental health centers that school districts might contract with.

“We have organizations that are dedicated to [mental health] that can follow students throughout the year. There are a ton of advantages to using them,” she said.

But speaking with the Joint Committee on Education, Christensen noted that some of the state’s smallest school districts lack mental health providers with whom they can partner.

“Our largest communities within the state have community-based mental health supports available to their students, their families, their town populations, while in our small communities across the state some of those things don’t exist.” , Christensen. said.

While Scott disagrees with the current version of the program, he said the legislation is fixable and necessary.

“Secondary [and] High school is when some of the really serious mental illnesses first show up, and you can have some very serious mental illness on top of all the normal growth problems,” Scott said. “There is a real need for mental health counseling for students of that age, and schools are a sensible and appropriate place to do it.”

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