Federal funding to improve school-based mental health access for students

Roughly $71 million in new federal funding will be available to enhance school safety and improve student access to mental health resources, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced earlier this month. The money — allocated through four grants to schools, districts and county offices of education throughout the country — is primarily to support helping children deal with trauma.

More than $11.3 million will go to 15 school districts through the Project Prevent grant program, which aims to increase district capacity to assist schools in communities with pervasive violence. $42.4 million is being distributed through the School Climate Transformation Grant Program among 69 school districts to help develop, enhance or expand systems of support for schools implementing a Multi-tiered System of Support for improving school climate. Five states — Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana and Nevada — will receive a portion of $6.7 million through the Trauma Recovery Demonstration Grant Program to fund model programs enabling students from low-income families who have experienced trauma to access trauma-specific mental health services.

And to help districts and state education agencies expand the pipeline of high-quality, trained professionals in schools, $11 million will be split among 27 recipients through the Mental Health Demonstration Grant Program to address shortages of mental health services in high-need schools and to provide supports that encompass social and emotional learning, mental wellness, resilience and positive connections between students and adults.

A severe need for expanded access to mental health resources

The federal grants come as schools are facing mounting rates and severity of mental health and trauma issues among students. About one in five children in the U.S. shows signs or symptoms of a mental health disorder in a given year. Nearly 80 percent of those youths who need mental health services will not receive them, and research shows they are more likely to be chronically absent, more disruptive in class, have lower academic achievement and ultimately drop out. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the second leading cause of death among those aged 15 to 19 years old.

However, many schools fail to use funding to meet the mental health needs of their students. A 2019 report from the American Civil Liberties Union found that police officers outnumber nurses, social workers, psychologists and nurses at school sites by wide margins. There are 1.7 million students nationwide attending schools with police officers but no counselors, and three million students in schools with police patrolling the halls but no nurses. In California, nearly 400,000 K-12 students attend a school that has a police officer on site but not a school counselor.

The new grants reflect a shift toward preventing violence in schools through proactive means such as improved mental health services rather than hardening schools by installing metal detectors or hiring armed security.

Filling gaps in access through school-based services

Pasadena Unified School District was awarded a portion of two of the four grants, which district officials say will be used to hire mental health professionals to expand mental health offerings and ensure students at all campuses have access to trauma-informed care.

With the money provided through the Project Prevent grant, for example, Pasadena USD will hire a full-time counseling, psychological and social services coordinator, said Eric Sahakian, the district’s assistant superintendent of school support services.

This person will “identify and implement case management interventions for high-needs students, using a trauma-informed approach to address the effects of exposure to pervasive violence and symptoms associated with trauma,” Sahakian said. The coordinator’s role will include “providing case management to students and parents that includes assessing, planning, monitoring and evaluating actions required to address barriers to educational success and positive behavioral health of identified students; coordinating with legal systems to ensure the needs of students in the youth court system with exposure to violence and trauma are properly addressed; and linking students to other services as needed,” Sahakian explained.

Pasadena USD will also bring in a full-time juvenile diversion counselor and trauma and crisis counselor to provide school-based counseling services to students with high rates of truancy, suspended students or those on probation, and students with additional stressors in the home, such as alcohol or drug abuse, domestic violence or those experiencing homelessness.

In addition, Pasadena USD was awarded Mental Health Demonstration grant funding, which will also be used to hire additional staff, Sahakian said. A new clinical supervisor will provide clinical supervision and training to mental health interns and school social workers. Counseling interns will be hired to work 20 hours per week in schools as part of their graduate-level degree requirements, and school social workers will be brought on to provide additional therapeutic mental health counseling to students enrolled in the district’s high-needs schools.

CSBA school safety and student mental health resources: