News: CJ Exclusives

Legislative working group on student mental health backs six recommendations

Subcommittee offers draft legislation as governor's working group has initial meeting

Lawmakers approved six recommendations during the final meeting of the School Safety Subcommittee on Student Health. The subcommittee, which went another round hearing from mental health experts, also discussed draft legislation to address staffing shortages and the creation of a threat assessment team.

The recommendations and draft legislation from the meeting Monday, April 23, will be sent to the House Select Committee on Safer Schools, which plans to meet again May 10.

Recommendations one and two looked to address shortages of student support staff, such as nurses, social workers, and school psychologists. While the recommended ratio of school psychologists to students is 1:700, North Carolina public schools are at 1:1,857. The ratio for school nurses is 1:2,315, but the recommendation ratio is 1:750. For social workers, the ratio is 1:1,427, with a recommended ratio of 1:400.

The first recommendation directs the State Board of Education to accept the nationally certified school psychologist credential for licensure in North Carolina. Draft legislation to enact state licensure reciprocity was included.

The second recommendation encourages lawmakers to pursue the recommended ratio for all student support staff. Some lawmakers suggested increasing salaries would make North Carolina competitive with other states, making jobs here more enticing. Others proposed incentives to attract people to rural areas, where the ratios of students to staff are highest.

Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said the General Assembly at least should meet the recommended ratio for school nurses.

“I think as it was pointed out in today’s testimonies, that school nurses are on the very front line of identifying and coordinating help for students with challenges,” Horn said. “I think that recognizing that in particular and urging the General Assembly meet the national standard on school nurses could go a long way to help us get out in front of the mental health needs of our kids.”

Horn said it wouldn’t cost much to do this and it could be done immediately. The estimated cost of meeting the recommended ratio for school nurses is $56.9 million annually. To reach the recommended ratio of social workers would require $210.9 million annually. Meeting the school psychologist recommended ratio would cost $110.4 million per year.

The subcommittee recommended every school have a threat assessment team to prevent violence by identifying behavior that could turn violent. A school psychologist, school nurses, social workers, school resource officers, and other members of the school community would comprise a team. Draft legislation to establish threat assessment teams, as well as promote peer-to-peer support groups through grants, was included.

Other recommendations included studying how to coordinate mental health services better to provide quality care, as well as train student mental health professionals on identifying potentially dangerous mental or behavioral health issues.

The subcommittee recommended exploring the expansion of N.C. Speak UP, an anonymous tip line app in the pilot stage in five counties. The app allows students to anonymously report potential threats or concerns about their peers committing suicide.

Lawmakers, including Reps. Charles Graham, D-Robeson, and Donna White, R-Johnston, said the app has a proven track record and doesn’t need additional study. They suggested expanding use of the app to cover all N.C. school districts.

While the House select committee is exploring ways to improve mental health services and physical security at schools, Gov. Roy Cooper has formed his own commission.

The Governor’s Crime Commission has formed a special committee on school shootings made up of representatives from law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, and other government agencies. The special committee will meet several times to explore how to prevent gun violence in schools. Its introductory meeting took place April 23.

Cooper previewed part of his agenda at an April 19 event, including a request of $130 million in the upcoming legislative session to prevent school violence. The governor wants $65 million in public safety upgrades, $40 million to hire more student support staff, $10 million for school resource officers, $444,000 for school risk management system, and $15 million for mental health programs for students.

“North Carolina’s classrooms must be safe and supportive places for educators to work and children to learn,” Cooper said in a press release. “We should address both classroom security and youth mental health needs and my budget takes meaningful steps to prevent school violence and protect teachers and students.”