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Mental Health in Schools: Mission Creep? Mission Impossible? or Mission Essential?

December 27, 2018

Over a decade ago when I was working as Superintendent of Schools I wrote an op ed piece for our local newspaper titled Mission Creep, a piece I later posted on this blog. The premise behind the article was that schools are being asked to take on far too many tasks that are beyond the scope of providing a sound academic education. It concluded with this observation:

Over the past fifty years public education had also absorbed responsibility for implementing social changes mandated by courts and legislatures. Schools became responsible for desegregation, educating severely handicapped children, and providing meals for poor children. During that same time period, legislators used public schools as a vehicle to show voters their responsiveness to issues in the news during the legislative session requiring schools to provide curricula on dental hygiene, gun safety, bullying, education on HIV and AIDS, and animal husbandry. Many of the social mandates are flashpoints for the public and result in erosion of support for schools and, in some cases, lower enrollments in public schools. The curricular mandates, taken in isolation, may seem reasonable. When they are required during the limited time students are in class, however, they supplant instruction in core areas of the curriculum.

That was then… and this NPR report of a survey result from Virginia Commonwealth University is now:

A recent VCU poll added a new question: whether or not people see providing mental health services for students as a core part of a public school’s mission.

Grant Rissler coordinates the VCU Wilder School’s Public Policy Poll. He says this question was new in last winter’s poll.

“Education is a key hub of so many other things policy-wise, especially related to youth. So I think the public and policy makers are constantly trying to figure out: what can we ask public schools to do?”

81 percent of respondents agreed – somewhat or strongly – that a student’s mental health should be part of a school district’s mission.

Virginia legislators will grapple with what that means next month. There’s already been legislation proposed that would require school counselors to spend more one-on-one time with students.

I wholeheartedly agree with the 81 percent who agree that schools should take on mental health issues… but I also believe they should do so by becoming community hubs for the provision of health and social services. Space for these services could be readily provided in rural areas where student populations are diminishing, in urban areas where public schools are expected to carve out space for co-located charter schools, and in suburban areas where the public has the funds needed to expand school space to accommodate health professionals of all kinds.

Tackling mental health might be mission creep and may be perceived as mission impossible… but in this era of social isolation and prolific guns, it is clearly an essential mission for public education.

 

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