Two bills that address school safety and expand access to student mental health were introduced at the New Jersey Assembly last week. Both were introduced one day after 19 elementary school students and two of their teachers were murdered by a gunman in Ovaldi, Texas on May 24.
“I really think if we focus on students who are really in crisis, and they behave inappropriately, and through crisis and act, they are causing problems, disrupting school or playing for other students,” State Assembly Education Committee Chairman Patricia Lampett, De Camden, said. “We really need to identify the right people around the table to have a conversation,” she said.
Lampett co-sponsored Bill A4075 with Representative Bill Moyne, Dee Camden, which, if passed by the House and state Senate and signed into law by Governor Phil Murphy, would require NJ public schools to establish threat assessment teams to identify students who could pose a risk to Security.
Lampet said efforts to pass laws to address safety and mental health began after school shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, and while lawmakers tried to tackle harassment and bullying in schools.
Threat Assessment Bill
Lampet said staff at each school would be able to bring the right people around the table to say that a child with problems in different areas might need support in a different direction.
Resolution A4075 did not pass in the assembly, but members adopted an amendment to it and Lampett said she expected it to come forward and pass it.
The proposed legislation calls for the formation of threat assessment teams consisting of a school psychologist or counsellor, a teacher, a school resource officer, a principal or administrator and a school safety specialist.
Team members will be trained to understand and identify childhood trauma. The bill also requires the state Department of Education to work with state law enforcement agencies and the State Office of Homeland Security and prepare the state to establish guidelines and policies on how the team can identify students who pose a risk to the community or themselves. An accompanying bill is up for a vote Monday in the Senate Education Committee.
A 15-year-old Watchung Hills Regional High School student was arrested Tuesday and charged with verbally threatening the school over the phone. The school went into lockdown after receiving the threat on May 25, the day after the Ovaldi shooting. Annie Taggart, the acting attorney for Somerset County, said the caller told school officials that he was in a school restroom with guns and that he would shoot the school at the next bell.
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Police conducted an “extensive search” and concluded that the threat was not credible. Taggart said the teen found he had made videos of himself hurting a pet. He is being held in the Middlesex County Youth Detention Center and will appear in Family Court.
Mental health access bill
Bill A4086l has been approved in the Assembly unanimously and is headed to the state Senate for a vote. If passed and signed into law by Murphy, it would direct school counselors to refer students who need mental health services beyond what the school can provide, to private professionals. The language in the bill states that the student’s costs for private counseling or treatment will not be paid by the state, which raises the question about the effectiveness of this measure.
Many private professionals do not participate in health insurance plans, and pass the expenses on to the students’ families. Despite laws requiring mental health benefits to be treated similarly to physical health, a lack of options within the network for mental health care and substance abuse can affect access to services for those with private health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In 2019 and 2020, 12.7% of 12-17 year olds In New Jersey, reported having a severe depressive episode Compared to 6.2% of those 18 and older, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 10.6% of 3- to 17-year-olds in the state received mental health care, just under 10.8% of children in the rest of the country.
The state’s access to mental health care is above the national average, but the 40% or 129,000 adults in New Jersey whose mental health needs are not being met said it was because of cost. This was similar to 39.7%, or 6.1 million, in the United States who did not get the mental health care they needed.
The bill requires parental consent before special treatment can be offered to a student referred by the school team.
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Lampett said school counselors are already able to refer students for outside help, but may be reluctant to do so because some parents and taxpayers feel the need to manage in-school care. Lampett said school counselors are not equipped to deal with diagnoses that need special attention, such as bipolar disorder. This law codifies permission to refer students to outside sources.
“Our advisors know their limits,” Lampett said, adding that they have requested that support from lawmakers at meetings.
Lampett co-sponsored the bill with Representatives Louis Greenwald de Camden and Sadaf Jaafar (Democrat of Somerset).
“This supports their efforts to be able to pass a person in crisis to the next person and hand it over to happen, rather than saying ‘My workload is too big, I can’t stand you,'” Lampet said.
Such actions had been considered before, but the Ovaldi shootings created an urgent necessity that prompted the publication of the bills. “We do it on a regular basis, but certainly, unfortunately, when there’s a crisis, it gets a little bit more attention,” Lampet said.
A similar bill was not submitted to the Senate for a vote after it was introduced in July 2020. The House passed it last year in March 2021.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a third bill requiring public colleges and universities to create programs and train staff to recognize depression and prevent suicides on campus.
The state Senate Education Committee will consider a bill next week that would require schools to provide remote mental health sessions for children who need them.
Mary Ann Corruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey schools and how they affect your children, please sign up or activate your digital account today.
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