Measures addressing mental health and safety in Texas schools on deck for 2023 general session

Following the tragedy in Uvalde this past May, the Texas Legislature is focused on an array of measures headed into 2023 that are aimed at addressing mental health and safety in public schools. 

 

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Prefiled bills that address school mental health, safety, and discipline include measures concerning bullying and harassment (House Bill 498), corporal punishment (HB 772), social services (HB 316), information management (HB 201), and vestibules (HB 801). 

“There have been a number of pretty prominent stories about children in schools being detained [for mental health reasons], some of them quite young,” said Rep. Stephanie Klick (R – Fort Worth) on filing and sponsoring HB 201. “I think the public at large is very concerned about that. I believe one was a child, maybe six [or] seven years old with autism. It’s very traumatizing for the student. And I think it’s important that we just have data. How often does this occur? With good data, we can make better decisions about how to best handle claims.”

Sen. Charles Perry (R – Lubbock) filed Senate Bill 245, which would establish telehealth mental health services and disciplinary measures for students exhibiting disruptive or disorderly behaviors. 

Sen. José Menéndez (D – San Antonio) has filed two bills, SBs 112 and 113, which would establish a mental health course requirement in the high school curriculum and provide Medicaid reimbursement for mental health services administered on public school grounds. 

SB 112 would require public high school students to complete at least one mental health course that includes instruction around topics like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, schizophrenia, and other disorders. 

SB 113 would allow school districts to partner with their local mental health authority to provide campus mental health assessments and services that are covered by the state’s Medicaid program. 

Texas Children’s Hospital recently reported an 800% increase in the number of children turning up at its emergency rooms in mental health crises during the pandemic. 

The hospital system’s three emergency centers in Houston went from seeing 50 kids per month in 2019 to now 450 children per month, who exhibit suicidal or aggressive behaviors or are undergoing other behavioral crises. 

Nancy Blum, Chief of Regional Operations for North Texas Behavioral Health Authority (NTBHA), told State of Reform that the pandemic has brought with it numerous challenges from workforce to an increase in demand for mental health services. 

“Truly coming off the back of the COVID pandemic, we’re seeing more need for education,” Blum said. “More and more people need to understand mental health and substance abuse so we’re getting lots of requests and we’re seeing a higher impact on individuals [who] are stepping up and saying that they’re struggling.”

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has submitted a $97.5 million Legislative Appropriations Request for the 2024-2025 biennium, $55 million of which would go to a data privacy initiative. 

Not specified in those requests are funds to address school safety. TEA plans to submit an exceptional item request for funding to address school safety improvements which include facilities upgrades, school-based safety personnel, technical assistance, and other support. The specific level of funding and resources will be presented to the legislature for consideration during the regular session.

The state’s Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program, an evidence-based curriculum used to train local mental and behavioral health authority (LMHA/LBHA) employees and contractors on assisting those experiencing or at risk of experiencing a mental health crisis, prioritized responding to school shootings as part of its curriculum this past year with additional training updates to come in the new year. 

The program’s 474 active trainers to date across 38 LMHA/LBHAs trained more than 26,000 people in FY 2022, most of them public school district employees (11,831) and community members (11,266). 

NTBHA trained more than 2,400 individuals through their MHFA program in FY 2022 and some 1,100 individuals have already been trained in the first few months of FY 2023, indicating the growing need for mental health training and education. 

Amy Sanders, Manager of Education and Outreach for the MHFA at NTBHA, says she hopes lawmakers will further fund school-based mental health services in 2023. 

“Now, what we’re seeing as far as the challenge in schools is that schools don’t have time,” Sanders said. “They’re running out of [professional development] days, so they don’t have time for us to come in and do these classes.

We have a lot of money to be able to train anyone that works for a public or charter school here in Texas. So having funding is very important. The other side of that funding is a federal block grant that we have in order to be able to offer these classes in our communities. For me, it’s listening to the funding that’s being discussed for this education and for mental health.”