Minnesota school districts that serve students with significant mental health and behavioral issues are celebrating the receipt of nearly $5 million in state grants earmarked for students in need of the most help.
The “innovation grants” were approved by the Legislature in 2017 and divided between the state’s four intermediate school districts, which serve as hubs for specialized services such as special education, career and technical education and gifted and talented programs. A fifth grant went to a service cooperative of school mental health providers.
In recent years, Minnesota lawmakers have stepped up funding for student mental health. Earlier this year, the state awarded $33 million in school-linked mental health grants that will provide services to students in more than half the state’s traditional school districts. But the funding for the intermediate districts is more specific — and a recognition of the very pressing needs of students they serve.
Sandy Lewandowski, superintendent of Intermediate District 287 in Plymouth, said her district serves hundreds of students referred from 11 school districts in Hennepin County. In addition, some District 287 students attend school at a handful of specialized learning centers where counseling and other psychiatric services are a significant part of their regular school day. A large number of the students have already endured a lifetime of traumatic events such as violence and homelessness, struggle with drug abuse or suffer from conditions related to fetal alcohol syndrome.
The impact of those experiences can be severe: In recent weeks Lewandowski said education center staff members had to call an ambulance multiple times for students suffering from a mental health crisis. One student threw a table through a glass window. A young girl had such a violent outburst that it took multiple staff members to restrain her. A boy not yet in his teens was arrested in connection with an armed robbery.
Without the kind of targeted help an intermediate school district setting provides, Lewandowski said these are the kinds of students who would have little hope of returning to a traditional school district — or to go on to have a productive life as an adult.
“Getting at this early, having a blended and high-quality response is what it takes to change this trajectory,” she said.
School officials said the grants help pay for additional training for intermediate district teachers and staff, along with other mental health professionals who work with students and families during the school day. Students served are as young as kindergarten and first grade.
The grants cover a two-year period that ends in mid-2019. Funding for beyond that point would need to be approved by the Legislature, which reconvenes in January.
Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said the state traditionally has not provided steady funding for mental health like it does for other health services. As a result, many of the programs in schools and elsewhere are funded by short-term grants that fund new strategies — but eventually expire.
“It’s allowed us to test innovation and fund things like school-linked mental health, but the tricky part has always been making sure we’re sustainable,” Piper said.