Secretary Schiliro spoke about our effort to expedite the creation of school safety plans. I wanted to give you a few details about some requests we are making of the General Assembly this year that are also relevant to student safety. Threats by outsiders to our schools are a major concern, but in addition to that concern, there are other elements of student safety involving lower level harm and disruption caused by other students that we are also seeking to address.
Our teachers and professionals who work in our schools have told us that one of our real unmet needs is mental health services for children. A lot of behavioral issues in our schools – some of them subtle and resulting in behaviors that disrupt the learning environment, some of them more severe and resulting in intimidation of or harm against other students – could be addressed by skilled mental health professionals if they were able to intervene early and effectively. Ultimately, of course, this also impacts adult mental health – many adults who have serious mental health problems first start displaying symptoms before they turn 18.
So finding kids with mental health needs and getting them help is of paramount importance. Our wellness centers in our public high schools help keep an eye on our high school aged children. In fact, the mental health services at our high school wellness centers are the most requested service from our high school students. And we have over fifty family crisis therapists in our elementary schools. But right now, only three of our state’s middle schools have full-time professionals responsible for monitoring the mental health needs of children at that critical age. So this year we will be asking you to join us in making a historic change in school-based mental health services: a ten-fold increase in the number of trained, front-line mental health personnel in our state’s middle schools, going from three schools with these personnel to thirty. Depending on their workload, some of these thirty individuals may be able to provide help in multiple schools.
Placing trained mental health professionals in our middle schools will have two positive effects. In the short term, children with mental health needs will have trained professionals on-site to provide some services and direct those children to the right outside services. In the long term, having these professionals will help Delaware build a better private network of mental health providers. Child mental health has been a tough area for Delaware to recruit private providers, in part because many children with mental health needs miss appointments, fail to take prescribed medications, and fail to stick with treatment plans. Professionals who know that Delaware is serious about supporting these kids – about having someone in the schools who will make sure that families are doing follow-up work at home – are more likely to set up shop here and treat kids.
Doing a better job of screening kids with mental health needs, whether it is in a middle school or a pediatrician’s office, will also create a demand for more private mental health services. So we are also asking you to fund two new initiatives to help address this demand. First, an initiative in our Medicaid and CHIP programs to pay for child psychiatrists to do telephone consultations with pediatricians and family doctors. This will allow pediatricians to directly prescribe follow-up services, including medication if necessary, without a child having to wait weeks or months for an appointment with a psychiatrist. And second, an investment in long-distance mental health services provided by Delaware-licensed psychologists and psychiatrists who are located out of state, using technology such as Skype. This is not a perfect solution to our shortage of in-state mental health professionals, but until we can bridge that gap, it will provide many children with direct contact with child psychologists and psychiatrists who otherwise would go without.
Taken together, these initiatives will mark an extraordinary improvement in our ability to detect children with mental health challenges, provide many of them with in-school services, and provide others with the high-level professional help that they need.
The Governor also mentioned during his State of the State speech that we will be asking you to make a new investment this year in after-school and summer programs for kids. There is solid evidence now that these programs not only improve students’ academic performance, but also reduce depression, drug use, and juvenile delinquency, all of which affect school safety. We are proposing a competitive grant process, where schools and non-profits will be able to submit grant proposals under a set of criteria established by the state. It is just a start – we expect demand for these grants to far exceed supply – but it is an important start.
These efforts go hand in hand with the school safety initiative that Secretary Schiliro discussed and with the gun safety efforts that we have previously discussed, in trying to provide a safer environment for our kids in schools. It is an incredibly important issue, and I am glad that the committee is devoting time to it today.
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