Bill would strengthen school response for mental health crises

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald Left to right: Snoqualmie Police Officer Kim Stonebraker, Sarah Marsh, Elsa Marsh, and North Central ESD Superintendent Michelle Price. Marsh testified in support strengthening response plans for schools when a student shows signs of mental or emotional distress. Marsh lost a friend and schoolmate while attending Mt. Si High School.

OLYMPIA — School districts throughout the state have for years failed to complete legally required response plans for students who are in potentially dangerous emotional distress.

State lawmakers may make up for lost time with a piece of legislation that would “strengthen” these response plans, according to draft legislation, providing funds to school districts who are struggling to fully come into compliance.

Much of the proposal, requested by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), would amend a five-year-old statute that required all school districts to have a plan for responding to signs a student might do harm to themselves or others.

Though the response plan is often listed under a district’s suicide prevention policies, it is the only state guidance that many schools can turn to when a student is reportedly having homicidal ideations, as was the case with the Freeman High School shooter.

A state-mandated response plan was to include a memorandum of understanding agreement (MOU) with a community organization that schools could refer students to in times of mental-health crises. An MOU would ensure that organization is capable of handling possible caseloads from the schools and would expedite the referral process, meaning students get treatment and counseling sooner.

Five years on, many school districts have still not come into compliance, often struggling with identifying a community mental health organization and establishing an MOU.

In an interview last December, Doug Johnson, Superintendent of Dayton School District, said his district was not in compliance with the statute.

“We do not have a formal agreement that I know of,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he had never been told an MOU was a requirement.

Dayton isn’t alone. Dave Balcom, director of students services for the Moses Lake School District, said that while the district had a formal agreement with Grant County Mental Health for decades, he was not certain if it constituted an MOU. Moses Lake School District saw a student in 1996 shoot and kill two other students and a teacher.

Moses Lake School District Superintendent Joshua Meek did not respond to repeated requests over the course of a week to verify the existence of an MOU.

The district has had a working relationship with Grant County Mental Health for decades, Balcom said. Though school districts often have an informal relationship with a mental health organization, none that responded before press time had a completed MOU.

Some school districts simply struggle to communicate to the public what resources, if any, are available. In the policies on the website of Freeman School District, there is filler text where phone numbers would go for a local crisis hotline or community mental health center.

“(List here the numbers for your community),” the procedure reads, leftover from model plans drafted by the OSPI years ago.

Jeffery Bell, a representative for Freeman School District, said that the school district maintains contact information for local mental health resources, but chooses not to identify them in the school’s procedures.

Ephrata School District similarly has filler text in place of some contact information, but withholding phone numbers for local crisis hotlines isn’t a universal practice. Quincy and Moses Lake school districts both provide full lists of contact information on their websites.

Lawmakers involved with school mental health care aren’t surprised by the variable success of schools.

“There was some good framework in [the existing statute], but there’s been an issue in school districts with not having the expertise or staff time needed,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines.

Orwall said that by passing this legislation, lawmakers would be ensuring school districts have the resources they need to come into compliance with the law.

The proposal would put resources into bringing school districts into compliance. The new proposal would provide almost 10 times as much money as the original and will pay for, among other things, mental health coordinators assigned to each of Washington’s nine Education Service Districts. The coordinators would review district progress and report annually to the OSPI.

John Boyd, superintendent of the Quincy School District, said that while he’s encouraged to see the legislature move to support school districts, the biggest problem districts face is not a lack of oversight from the state.

“The worst part is finding the staff,” Boyd said. “[This bill] is not going to be a magic bullet.”

Boyd said that universities aren’t producing enough psychologists, social workers, counselors, etcetera, in order to meet the need of rural students, and that lawmakers need to incentivize students to enter those fields.

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