Helping through mental health

Published 8:47 am Monday, March 5, 2018

Policy makers in Kentucky are still making strides to curb the possibility of another tragic school shooting happening.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Marshall County High School in January that claimed the lives of two students and injured many more, State Rep. Will Coursey, D-Benton, has filed legislation that would call on all public school districts to have mental health professionals on staff by the start of the 2018-19 school year. They would be hired to support students and school staff and to guide violence prevention efforts.

Coursey said he filed House Bill 604 “because I think this is a critical area needing more attention. Family resource and youth services centers fill in non-academic gaps that hinder learning. These additional mental health professionals can provide more support for students and staff, as well as work preventively to help schools create the types of environment that keep students safe.”

He noted that the General Assembly’s Health and Welfare Committee discussed last fall what are called adverse childhood experiences (ACE), which include abuse, domestic violence and the loss of a parent to prison or divorce.

Legislators were told that nearly half of the children in the United States have suffered from at least one ACE, and those with three or more have a life expectancy that is up to 20 years lower than the national average. The rate of ACEs in Kentucky exceeds what is found in many other states.

“We know that many of our students bring these ACEs with them to school,” he said. “It is our responsibility to provide the type of school climate and environment that will allow ALL students to learn and thrive. That ultimately creates a safer environment for everyone in our schools. That is the intent of this legislation.”

Lisa Willner, a licensed psychologist who is executive director of the Kentucky Psychological Association and an elected school board member in Jefferson County, noted that “the most protective factor against violence in schools is a high level of student sense of belonging. The trauma-informed approach that Rep. Coursey is calling for is a significant step forward for our schools and for our state.”

She also said that if we want to understand how to prevent violence in our schools, we must look not only at instances of mass violence, but at the many instances of imminent threat of violence that never occurred. “The number one reason that these threats were never completed was because someone spoke up,” she said. “Students are much more likely to speak up about possible threats when they attend schools with the kinds of positive environments and emotional support in place that Rep. Coursey’s bill would provide.”

Under the bill, every public school district would have to have at least one mental-health professional per 1,500 students by this fall, and these professionals would be hired in addition to current guidance counselors and school psychologists. They would be called upon to identify and then help students whose learning, behavior and relationships have been impacted by trauma, and to provide training to school staff in supporting the learning needs of all students.

“I’ve heard from many counselors who say they are overwhelmed with other duties like career development and testing,” Rep. Coursey said. “Having a mental-health professional on staff will put a renewed focus on this important area. These mental health professionals will not only provide services to students, but add support for teachers and school staff.”

State Rep. Steven Rudy, the chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, is the prime co-sponsor of the bill. His legislative district also includes Paducah’s Heath High School, which was the site of a 1997 school shooting.

“Steven truly understands the importance of this issue, and I’m proud to work with him to help make this a reality,” Rep. Coursey said. “We’re committed to doing what we can to find the necessary funding.”

Middlesboro Independent Schools Superintendent Waylon Allen stated, “I support HB 604. Rather than taking a reactive stance, we need to become more proactive and seek to provide students with the services they need to learn and thrive in the school setting. We have already witnessed the positive impact of mental health counseling provided in our schools by Comprehensive Care, but I would love to see the state and/or federal government provide funding to districts for the hiring of mental health professionals to work with our students and families. When budget cuts are made in education, districts are often faced with drastic cuts and it becomes financially difficult to provide things such as mental health counseling for students and other programs that service our most needy children.”

This bill will be considered during the ongoing legislative session, which is scheduled to conclude in mid-April. It can be found online here: http://www.lrc.ky.gov/record/18rs/HB604.htm.