As they seek to make schools safer, Minnesota lawmakers are increasingly turning their attention to the topic of students’ mental health.
It’s a subject the Legislature has tackled before, approving grant funding for school counselors and launching programs that provide in-school treatment for students with particularly severe needs. But this year, lawmakers, educators and mental health advocates are stepping up the push for broader funding and policies in an effort to reach more schools and students.
Bills introduced in the first weeks of the session would require all Minnesota schools to have a counselor on staff, mandate instruction about mental health and provide online suicide prevention training for districts across the state. Others would beef up existing mental health grant programs or fund full-service community schools, where students and families could receive medical and mental health services.
Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, chairwoman of the Education Finance and Policy Committee, said lawmakers are motivated to tackle the issue this year. That’s in part because a $28 million school safety bill they approved last year in the wake of two high-profile school shootings in other parts of the country was ultimately vetoed after being tucked into a broader policy bill.
“I think we will be laser focused on mental health, because the need is so great,” Nelson said.
Lawmakers from both parties said they’ve been hearing frequently from school administrators, counselors and teachers who are concerned about what they see as a growing population of students struggling with mental health issues.
Sandy Lewandowski, superintendent of Intermediate District 287 in Plymouth, recently invited legislators to visit the North Education Center, a school that serves students with highly complex mental health needs. Students are referred into the district from 11 school districts in Hennepin County, often with problems so severe that they’ve spent months or years bouncing in and out of schools, hospitals, treatment centers and juvenile detention facilities.
Intermediate districts like Lewandowski’s have previously received grants to help address students’ needs. But she said it’s not enough. Without a steady, predictable funding stream — or a broader recognition of the issues her staff and students deal with on a daily basis — Lewandowski said her staff can’t provide for all the students who need help.
“The primary message that we’re trying to send is that schools are certainly becoming the front line of the children’s mental health system,” she said.
Lewandowski wants to see lawmakers expand on a school-linked mental health grant program that provides funding for outside mental health professionals that work in school buildings. The most recent round of grants doled out $33 million over three years to providers that serve about 1,000 schools. (That’s close to half of the state’s 2,066 public schools.) A separate, $5 million “innovation grant” program, which expires this year, provides funding for the state’s four intermediate districts for more specific services.
Meanwhile, lawmakers are trying to fortify other funds that schools use to pay for a variety of safety needs, from building improvements to hiring substance abuse counselors, school psychologists and other staff. Some want districts and schools to retain complete control over how they spend the money, though others are advocating for a more targeted approach.
Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, has introduced a bill that would require all schools to have a counselor on staff — a move she said would help bring Minnesota in line with the national average in its counselor-to-student ratio. (Nationwide, the average is about 460 students for every counselor, while in Minnesota, it’s closer to 720 students per counselor.) Other states, including Wisconsin and Iowa, already require a counselor in every building.
Dziedzic said she wants lawmakers to consider what’s being lost in schools where there’s no one to provide additional support to students or to take note of a student who may need help.
“We could be helping those kids succeed, or stopping the problem before it gets way out of control,” she said.
Brooke Magid Hart, a counselor at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School, said she’s seen a “skyrocketing amount” of mental health issues affecting students and families in recent years. She said school counselors, who also provide academic, college and career guidance, are an essential form of backup for teachers who don’t have the time or the training to address many of their students’ needs.
“We talk a great talk about we want all of our kids to be college and career ready, we want them to be academically ready,” she said. “[Counselors] are on the front lines of doing that work and we don’t exist at so many of our schools.”
Lawmakers are also taking a closer look this session at suicide prevention. In the Senate, Nelson has proposed dedicating $480,000 for a suicide-prevention training course that would be available online to teachers around the state.
A separate bill authored by the state Senate’s two physician-members, Sen. Scott Jensen, R-Chaska, and Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights; along with Sen. Rich Draheim, R-Madison Lake, would require all schools to provide instruction about mental health to students in 4th through 12th grades, including lessons on preventing self-harm and suicide. Currently, state law encourages, but does not mandate, mental health education for middle and high school students.
With more than three months remaining in the legislative session, most of the bills related to schools and mental health are still awaiting hearings. But mental health advocates, including Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, are optimistic that several of the ideas will find widespread support from lawmakers and DFL Gov. Tim Walz.
“I think there is very high interest,” she said. “I’m actually very hopeful that we’ll get a little bit of everything — maybe not to the full extent needed, but I think we will see increased [support].”