CHEYENNE – Lawmakers hope to address a lack of mental health resources for students in the upcoming general session.
Members of the Joint Education Committee voted 8-6 Tuesday to sponsor a bill that would allocate more than $11.5 million in additional funding for K-12 school districts for the next two years. Administrators could apply for one competitive grant up to $120,000 that would go toward mental health services, and would help the state collect data on student needs.
Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, introduced the bill to the committee, because he said school districts are patching together mental health programs and need more support. He said he has witnessed smaller districts struggle, particularly, because even though they have a smaller population, there are no resources available to them.
He based the appropriation of $11.5 million on the cost of all 48 of the state’s districts covering a mental health professional’s salary at $120,000 for two years. This was agreed upon by school finance consultants for the state.
“It’s unfortunate that we are in a society today where mental health services are so needed for children,” Sommers said. “But we are there, and we’ve been there. I’m just trying to look for solutions.”
Wyoming ranks the worst in the nation for suicide, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The U.S. average is 14.5 suicides per 100,000, and Wyoming is nearly double at 29.8.
This trend remains the same for young adults in the state.
The average suicide rate for residents between the ages of 15 and 24 is 28.2 suicides per 100,000, while the U.S. average is 13.9. Averages increase as the age demographic does, and the rate for residents ages 25 to 34 is 31.4 per 100,000, which is 13.9 higher than the national average of 17.5.
While legislators agreed there was a need for additional support in the schools, some were wary of an additional appropriation. There were discussions on how to equitably distribute the grants, whether the impact could be measured, and if more counseling personnel or innovative programs would solve the issue at hand.
Others brought forward the fact that the Legislature didn’t adopt recalibration recommendations in 2020, such as increasing the number of employees in school districts for mental health and wellness. Sen. Chris Rothfuss, D-Laramie, said lawmakers couldn’t go back in time and adopt the recommendations, or update the funding model immediately from 2011, but they could implement the grants in the meantime.
“This is not a perfect piece of legislation. We’ve all got some concerns with how it is structured, but we’re short in mental health and wellness,” he said. “We know that we don’t provide enough resources, we don’t have enough people, and we don’t service the needs of our students and our education employees throughout the state.”
Educators, administrators and trustees throughout the state advocated for the bill.
“We do not have a dedicated mental health professional on staff,” said Sheridan County School District 3 Superintendent Chase Christensen. “We don’t have an SRO (school resource officer) on staff. We don’t have a school nurse on staff. We don’t have a school psychologist on staff. We don’t have a school social worker on staff.”
When asked why there were so many positions unfilled, Christensen said that in order to hire teachers, they had to hire at a higher salary than the model provided. This funding took away from other resources in the school district, and it is a common struggle for smaller districts.
Other schools in the state that do provide mental health services or were able to fund a counselor have their own difficulties. A guidance counselor in Dubois, Mike Marcus, said that their mental health specialist was already seeing more than 20 clients in the two-and-a-half months since she had been hired.
“The average session in Wyoming is about $125 to $145 an hour, and so that’s pretty expensive,” he said. “A lot of our students and families can’t support that, and we’re kind of filling the gap.”
Another social worker at Pinedale Elementary School said she was serving 50 students a week, and she is the only provider. Jenny Arne said there was an immense need for mental health services post-pandemic, and a similar trend was seen at the high school. She said she serves students with anxiety that causes students to refuse to even walk through the doors of school, or access classrooms.
“There are a lot of adults in our communities that are struggling with addictions, and so that directly affects the kids,” she said. “I’ve worked with a lot of kids who are coping with living in really dysfunctional home environments.”
Hannah McKinney is guidance counselor at Pinedale High School, and she is also the only faculty member with mental health care qualifications. There is no social worker, psychologist or a consistent school resource officer, and often there is no community mental health provider to pass students along to outside of school.
She said she was hired for administrative work and handling ACT testing, transcripts and graduation requirements, but she is “putting out fires on a daily basis, as opposed to preventing them.”
McKinney has completed 18 suicide risk assessments since the beginning of the year.
“I find myself grappling every single day with what’s more important: is it a student in crisis due to mental health concerns, or is it somebody that needs to get on a path to graduate high school and be successful in college?” she said.
Although the bill was sponsored by the committee, there was debate about whether it was the best solution for educators and students.
“Now we’re delving into health care on the Education Committee. And I think we have the two largest budget items in the state budget, which are the Department of Health and K-12,” said Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester. “Now you guys are competing for mental health budgets. Everybody wants to do mental health, everybody wants to throw money at mental health.”
He said he wanted the Department of Health to use the funding it received for mental health services to work with schools. He said it was their “bailiwick,” and they should provide support on a contract basis, and it was the wrong approach to provide the $11.5 million appropriation.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, voted no on the legislation, but said she wanted a more tailored approach to the issue, and better identified success metrics. She said there would be continual requests for funding in the future, and it would be put in the K-12 block grant with little understanding of how it was spent.
Ellis said she also wanted to see creative approaches besides hiring another counselor, such as a bill that was recommended by two sophomores at Burns High School. She said their school was impacted greatly by suicide, and the students wanted mental and behavioral health days to be counted as excused absences.
Another solution suggested by a senator who voted no to the sponsorship was bringing in the faith community to schools. Rep. Chip Neiman, R-Hulett, said there were residents who wanted to help for free, and to pray for students, encourage them and tell them they’re irreplaceable. He said the conversation regarding mental health is partially wrapped around people “that are hopeless and dealing with anxiety.”
He said earlier in discussions that he couldn’t support the appropriation because districts had enough to allocate for mental health needs, and it would be there “if it was better managed.”
“Spiritually, these kids need help, and these people need help,” he said.
Other lawmakers said it was important to consider a multitude of responses, but action had to be taken now. Sommers said members of the faith community, prevention specialists and school districts are already working together and putting money into mental health, but it isn’t enough. He said faculty are overloaded.
“Go spend a day or a week with your guidance counselor, and walk around school all day. It’s a different deal than when we all went to school,” said Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, before he voted yes. “Most of the kids are doing great, don’t get me wrong … but there are some really tough deals. And we’ve got to be able to help those kids. Because if schools aren’t, who else is going to?”