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Student Mental Health at Heart of Legislative Debate Today

Some rural Nebraska school districts don't have easy access to supportive services that can help students struggling with mental illness. (Pixabay)
Some rural Nebraska school districts don't have easy access to supportive services that can help students struggling with mental illness. (Pixabay)
March 9, 2018

LINCOLN Neb. – Nebraska lawmakers will discuss legislation Friday that backers say could help students struggling with behavioral and mental health challenges. Legislative Bill 998 would create a Collaborative School Behavioral and Mental Health Fund, and provide each of the state's 19 Educational Service Units with a social worker for students and schools.

Executive director of the group Stand for Schools, Ann Hunter-Pirtle, says growing poverty means more kids are coming to class with new challenges that some districts aren't equipped to handle. If not addressed, she explains those behaviors can be a distraction – or at worst, a safety concern.

"There is a lot of discussion in recent weeks about school safety,” she says. “And a really clear place to start is someplace that nearly everyone can agree on, which is that students should get access to the mental and behavioral health services they need, regardless of where in the state they live."

Hunter-Pirtle adds offering preventive care can address issues before they reach crisis stage. The bill outlines a plan to create the fund using private donations.

Laura Barrett with Educational Service Unit 13 in Scottsbluff says LB 998 would be particularly helpful for rural areas, where schools don't have easy access to mental health care.

"What we see is that students are either missing out on school because they are not able to come to school, or in order to travel to some of these services, they're missing a lot of time, and they just struggle academically because of that," says Barrett.

She adds having a social worker at each ESU would help bridge the services that are already available.

"We have school psychologists, and making sure we're utilizing them well; we also know there are private therapists or other community resources,” she says. “And some of our schools lack the time for somebody to sit and devote to really helping align those services to the child's need or the family's need."

In a recent survey of Nebraska school administrators about student mental and behavioral health, 95 percent of respondents said having people to provide services was a high or medium priority.

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service - NE