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Lawmakers approve mental health counselor requirement for middle schools

Delaware's state capitol
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
Delaware's state capitol building.

Delaware public middle schools will begin hiring mental health counselors next year – part of a long-term strategy by to address mental wellbeing during key developmental years.

State lawmakers in both chambers voted unanimously last month to require public middle schools to hire full-time counselors or social workers to provide mental health care to students. The bill directs schools to provide one counselor for every 400 students by next year, and one counselor for every 250 students by 2025.

Annie Slease, the advocacy director for the Delaware branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says the bill is both an opportunity to offer help to vulnerable young people and a chance to lift a burden off teachers.

“Educators are just not trained to treat or address mental health concerns; they aren’t mental health professionals," she said. "So this bill will hopefully help them focus on what they are trained to do, which is to teach.”

The bill built on legislation passed last year requiring mental health counselors in elementary schools. Senate Education Committee chair Laura Sturgeon told colleagues she hopes to see the same counseling opportunities extended to high school students in the near future.

“It’s really important that we signal that this is where we want to go, and hopefully HB 400 or 500 will bring those supports all the way through grade 12," she said. "But for now, we’re focused on middle school, which is a difficult time in students’ lives.”

Sturgeon also notes the legislature was slow to fund last year’s bill. The legislature funded this year’s bill – which will require an estimated $10 million in state dollars next year and $15 million by 2025 – through the state’s Grant-in-Aid Bill.

Local governments will also take on some of the costs of hiring counselors.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.