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Education

Bill expanding mental health services for Delaware elementary school students becomes law

Mental health advocates celebrated a win Thursday as Gov. John Carney signed a bill expanding access to counsellors for elementary school students statewide. 

The bill that became law Thursday establishes funding for more school counsellors, psychologists and social workers in Delaware elementary schools. 

 

State officials say that 86% of elementary schools here do not employ a social worker and that ratios of students to school counselors and school psychologists are higher than what’s considered best practice. 

But under the new law, schools will have one full-time social worker or counsellor per 400 students this fiscal year, one per 325 students next fiscal year, and one per 250 students the following one. It also provides one full-time school psychologist per 700 students. 

“We in the education world have long realized that young children desperately need mental health support in schools,” Colonial School District Superintendent Jeffrey Menzer at Thursday's bill signing. “Because when left unchecked, their issues follow them into middle and high schools, and that negatively impacts their academic and social emotional outcomes in school and even following graduation.”

The bill’s lead sponsor, Rep. Valerie Longhurst (D-Bear), remembers struggling to focus in class after she was moved from her mom’s home following her mom's suicide attempt. 

“We had to go to school. We didn't have our toys, we didn't have our clothes, and all I remember is sitting in that classroom in a fog, trying to figure out what the heck just happened to me,” she said. “I don’t know how any child can learn if they have these things going on in their lives. I know firsthand it wasn’t easy. I didn’t have anybody to help me.”

State Sen. Marie Pinkney (D-New Castle), a co-sponsor of the legislation, said Thursday she could have used a counsellor when she was little—and her mom was struggling with addiction. 

“I can’t imagine what a difference that would have made for me, and things turned out OK, but it’s going to make a difference for a kid whose situation may not have turned out OK,” she said. 

Pinkney added that early mental health interventions can prevent kids from getting involved in the criminal justice system later. 

“House Bill 100 means that we’re going to catch them well before they’re teenagers,” she said. “We’re going to catch them when they’re antsy, and teachers don’t have the time to pull them out, because they’re teaching, they’re doing what they went to school to do, they’re educating.”

The program is expected to cost districts millions—and the state tens of millions—of dollars each year. 

The law also requires state education officials to create a plan to expand this unit funding into pre-schools, middle schools and high schools.

 

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