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Education leaders raise concerns about school safety and post-pandemic mental health crisis • Michigan Advance | #schoolsaftey


The Michigan House Education Committee took a Monday evening field trip to Sterling Heights High School in Macomb County for a rare meeting outside Lansing to hear from educational leaders about school safety and the youth mental health crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

To ensure students are equipped to learn, schools need to address school safety and security, as well as mental health needs that arise in students, Chief Academic Officer of Warren Consolidated Schools David Meengs told lawmakers. However, in talking about students’ access to school mental health professionals, despite best efforts, he said, “it’s not enough,” as each school counselor in the district is on average responsible for providing care to around 350 students.

“It’s no secret that in today’s changing educational landscape, the mental health crisis that we face as educational leaders. … The profound impact of the pandemic we have had to endure can not be overstated,” Meengs said.

Before the COVID pandemic, research and data showed about 1 in 6 kids in the U.S. had a mental health condition, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) echoing that finding, noting anxiety disorders were the most commonly reported disorder for children.

Chief Academic Officer of Warren Consolidated Schools David Meengs speaks at a House Education Committee meeting at Sterling Heights High School on March 11, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

But COVID made things worse, with almost half of high school students in a 2021 CDC survey reporting that they felt persistently sad or hopeless during the pandemic and over one-third reporting that they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic.

The American Psychological Association reported that in reviewing data from 2020, the pandemic compounded already-existing stressors in Americans’ lives, saying, “We are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come,” from grieving the death toll, to loss of hope for the future as people knew it.

“Behind this devastating loss of life is immense stress and trauma for friends and families of those who died; for those infected; for those who face long recoveries; and for all Americans whose lives have been thrown into chaos in countless ways, including job loss, financial distress, and uncertain futures for themselves and their nation,” the American Psychological Association said. “The potential long-term consequences of the persistent stress and trauma created by the pandemic are particularly serious for our country’s youngest individuals.”

COVID didn’t create the mental health crisis in schools, but it did exacerbate it and drive it into the public eye, Michigan Association of School Psychologists President Lauren Mangus said.

“We have a lot of needs on our hands,” Mangus said. “With those increasing mental health needs, it just really points out how dire it is for us to be able to do these comprehensive roles.” 

School safety in Michigan has become a hot-button issue after the state saw two deadly mass shootings over two years, one at Oxford High School in 2021 and another at Michigan State University in 2023. Both shootings have left the schools and surrounding communities to try and pick up the pieces and heal, as students still have to learn at these institutions.

“Scared brains don’t work,” said Diana Wheatley, a school social worker in New Haven Public Schools. School safety and mental health are intertwined issues and collaboration between she and her “sisters in service” working in other roles in school mental health is critical to make already overburdened school employees capable of addressing the needs of students, she added.

“All of us work together to create an environment that is emotionally and psychologically safe for our students to give them the capacity to learn as much as they can every day,” Wheatley said.

But the ratios of school mental health service providers to students in Michigan fall short of recommended standards, Wheatley pointed out.

 

The School Social Work Association of America recommends that there be a ratio of one school social worker for every 250 students. The nonpartisan Citizens Research Council of Michigan reported in 2021 that each school social worker was responsible for 1,051 students, more than four times what is recommended.

The expert organizations that set the recommended ratios as best practices did so before the pandemic and the mental health strain it created, Mangus said. This context further extends the gap between what is recommended in terms of ratios and what students are actually receiving in Michigan.

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one school psychologist for every 500 students. But the association found that in the 2022-23 school year in Michigan, the ratio of school counselors to students was 1 to 1,443, nearly three times more students than is recommended.

And as much as children suffered stress and learning loss during the pandemic, Mangus said the impact on adults, specifically teachers and educational workers, is often overlooked.

The Stress in America survey from the American Psychological Association in 2020 found that nearly 8 in 10 adults said the pandemic was a significant source of stress in their life. About half of adults said their behavior was negatively affected, whether that be “snapping” out of anger at others, sometimes loved ones, or experiencing unexpected mood swings.

“The mental health needs of adults have increased exponentially, too. So when we think about parent mental health, when we think about any adult’s [mental] health, educators included, that’s really important in school climate pieces,” Mangus said. 

School counselors are also spread too thin to accomplish all the things they’d like to in students’ lives, Michigan Counselor Association President Terri Tchorzynski said.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, but in the 2022-23 school year, the most recent data, the association found that counselors in Michigan are responsible for an average of 598 students, more than double what is recommended.

Michigan ranks second worst in the ratio of school counselors to students, second only to Arizona, which has 667 students to every counselor.

But Michigan has made efforts to help to get more mental health professionals into schools, Tchorzynski said, and there’s more that it can do.

Rep. Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) listens to a speaker at a House Education Committee meeting at Sterling Heights High School on March 11, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

Creating opportunities for individuals to enter these professions and attracting and retaining professionals will be key to continue to support students, Tchorzynski said, but funding is a big component.

Many other speakers noted funding from the state directly to schools in order to hire more mental health professionals as the hinge issue for improving school employee ratios. Last year, $328 million was designated in the state budget specifically for schools to fund improvements to school mental health, including making staff hires.

House Education Committee Minority Vice Chair Jaime Greene (R-Richmond) said after the Monday meeting that she’s appreciative of the school professionals who came to speak with lawmakers and said what they talked about had value. But she said the meeting as a whole seemed more like “political posturing.” She and other Republicans have repeatedly called attention to a bipartisan school safety package that has lay dormant for over a year.

Education Committee Chair Matt Koleszar (D-Plymouth) said after the meeting that he’s hoping that the committee will take some of the bills up soon. He said representatives are fine-tuning them, as the sponsors “talked to essentially no school stakeholders” and the legislation was incomplete.

But perfection hasn’t gotten in the way of any legislation passed under Democratic leadership in the Legislature, Greene said. And if the point of the meeting in Macomb County was to reach more educational professionals and more input is needed for the bills, then it would have been prudent to show these professionals the bills, she said.

Minority Vice Chair of the House Education Committee Rep. Jaime Greene (R-Richmond) listens to a speaker at a House Education Committee meeting at Sterling Heights High School on March 11, 2024. (Photo: Anna Liz Nichols)

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if these bills were discussed in a committee and then we had stakeholders offer their opinion?” Greene said.

Lansing is a centralized location and a better venue to allow for as many people as possible to offer their input on student mental health and safety, Greene added. 

However, Koleszar said he appreciated the opportunity to meet educators where they’re at and he’s hopeful that the committee could do another remote hearing in the future to get more voices heard than those who can make the trip to the state Capitol during the day.

Ultimately, speakers at the committee painted a strong picture of what schools need in terms of mental health professionals and that needs to be taken into account when finalizing school safety policy, Koleszar said.

“We have to continue to invest in attracting and retaining school psychologists, school social workers and school counselors. At the end of the day, we’re talking about student safety. If you don’t have the proper professionals in these buildings to work with the most vulnerable students, that’s not going to cut it,” Koleszar said. 

“We obviously want our kids to know that when they come to school, they are supported, they’re loved and we want them to go home safe each and every day. And we want them to know when they come to school that there are adults all over these buildings that care about them and want nothing but the best for them.”

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