School-Based Mental Health Initiatives on the Horizon

Student mental health will be among the biggest education-related issues heading into the next legislative session and state budget. According to the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), 20 percent of children experience a significant mental health issue and less than a third of those will receive the services they need.

A group of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reporters has compiled a list of 10 potential legislative actions to address mental health issues, including teen suicide and bullying, that are based on a year of reporting in a series titled Kids in Crisis. They may also give an idea on what proposals we could see from legislators next year as evidenced by the reactions from several state lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) and Senate Minority Leader Jennifer Shilling (D-La Crosse), to their recommendations.

Last January, the WASB Delegate Assembly approved Resolution 6.06 supporting adequate state resources to provide professional mental health services and supports in schools.  Our position is that any action taken must respect local control and seek to provide resources that schools can use to enter into voluntary partnerships with mental health professionals rather than create more unfunded or underfunded state mandates.

The following are the initiatives identified by the Kids in Crisis reporting team that would most directly impact schools and where the WASB stands on them:

Support mental health clinics in schools

As mentioned in the article, many state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they would like to see more mental health services in schools. Some said they would like to see state funding for screening and clinics in the next biennial budget, following the Minnesota model. Speaker Vos said he would like to see Medicaid dollars utilized more in school mental health, but was open to looking at the possibility of other state investments in clinics.

The WASB supports the provision of state funding adequate to provide school-based professional mental health programs, supports and services.

Standardize and expand mental health screening in schools

Speaker Vos told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin that with how important it is to catch problems early, this was his top priority. He said an expansion of the screenings is a goal of his for the next budget, but the extent would depend on how much it costs.

The WASB supports voluntary partnerships between schools and agencies to provide comprehensive student screening in every school, provided it is adequately funded by the state.

Require schools to track and respond to bullying

According to the article, while several lawmakers said they supported changes to the bullying statute, Speaker Vos said he was “reluctant to try to mandate evermore reporting requirements on school districts.” Rep. Melissa Sargent (D-Madison) said she is working with attorneys as she considers ways to strengthen Wisconsin’s anti-bullying law.

The WASB appreciates the Speaker’s reluctance to mandate the reporting/tracking of bullying incidents on school districts.  These could be costly and time-consuming for school staff without much evidence of the effectiveness of the measures.  In the past, the WASB has raised strong concerns about legislation that would have required fines or forfeitures to be imposed on school employees who do not report bullying because this might cause school staff to over-report certain incidents as “bullying” to avoid facing potential prosecution.  Given limited resources, time spent investigating minor incidents could make it harder for schools to address more serious situations. School districts are already required to have policies on bullying, which they can come up with themselves, or  they can utilize a model policy developed by DPI (which includes the components the article is calling for).  We strongly feel this should remain a local decision that reflects community values.

The WASB is currently in discussions with a coalition of social service and community organizations that are seeking to expand school-based mental health services and has also met with the DPI and the Governor’s office on this topic.  We will update you on anything that comes out of these discussions on a strategy to achieve significant mental health support to school districts while respecting local school board authority.

Read More: Wisconsin School News feature