Describing the anxiety and depression of Utah’s children, parents and educators ask for $32M to add more school counselors

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Gov. Gary Herbert meets with school counselors during a visit to Rose Springs Elementary in Stansbury Park on Aug. 3, 2018.

One teacher had to run her students out of the classroom when a kid started throwing books during a meltdown. A principal had a child who would crawl under the desk in his office to cry. A girl told school administrators that her friend had been hurting herself, and she didn’t know how to help. A mom found her nine-year-old son’s to-do list for the day and “commit suicide” was the last item not crossed off after his homework.

These were the stories that residents from across the state told lawmakers Thursday as they asked for support of a bill that would fund more therapists in schools throughout Utah.

“I credit his elementary and middle school counselors” for saving her son’s life, parent LeAnn Wood testified, and “for him being functioning today.” But, she said: There needs to be more.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, would give $32 million — the single largest ongoing funding request for any education bill this session — to the Utah Board of Education to spread among the 41 public school districts in the state, as well as charter schools, to support better mental health services. Most of the money is earmarked for hiring more licensed counselors and nurses, though schools can create their own programs.

After hearing from a dozen people with personal testimonies, HB373 passed in the House Education Committee with a 8-1 vote.

To get a share of the money, schools would have to draft a plan based on their needs, including whether most of their students are unable to afford counseling, if they have a high number of kids who have experienced trauma and if they have a waiting list to see a psychologist. Those plans would be reviewed by state Board of Education members, who would award grants based on the applications and matching funds.

“The only thing I regret about this is that it’s just long past due,” said Eliason, R-Sandy. “The kids are not all right.”

The bill would absorb a similar measure passed last year to allocate $1.2 million to elementary schools for therapists — which was widely applied for and quickly ran out. The bigger pool of money would then apply to all public K-12 schools.

Eliason, long a champion for mental health legislation, focuses much of his proposals on preventing suicide. This bill is a continued part of that effort in Utah, where it’s the leading cause of deaths for those 10 to 17 years old. In 2018, 39 kids in that age group died by suicide in the state.

“I think we have a long way to go,” the lawmaker said, “and I think this bill is an important step in that direction.”

He hopes that students will be able to get the support they need at school before reaching a crisis. Rep. Marie Poulson, a former high school instructor, said one of her students died by suicide, and she wished he had more resources at the time.

“It’s something that a teacher never really recovers from, or parents or anyone involved,” Poulson added.

Eliason’s proposal is one of a handful drafted by state lawmakers this year to address mental health and school safety. Another focuses on assessing threats and suspending students who could be a danger to their peers. A third would allow school districts to bill Medicaid for counseling services.

The one committee member who voted against HB373, Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, raised concerns about the “substantial” allocation, as well as fears that the bill could infringe on parental rights.

He doesn’t want school counselors to be able to talk to students or prescribe them medication without parent approval. He asked Eliason to add a measure explicitly requiring that “opt in.” It next goes to the full House for consideration, and Robertson said he’d vote for it there with that new language.

The bill was debated for more than 80 minutes Thursday with a long line of mental health professionals, parents and teachers speaking about it.

Cade Douglas, the superintendent of Sevier School District in central Utah, said four students in his district have died by suicide in the last 10 months. The area is largely rural and has a high percentage of residents living in poverty, he added.

“We’re implementing every program that we can come up with,” he said. But the district needs more funding and more counselors, he said.

The Utah PTA, the Utah Education Association and the Disability Law Center all spoke in support. The Utah branch of the American Academy of Pediatrics argued that right now many teachers are providing mental health care because there’s not enough staff at schools. Voices of Utah Children added that early intervention is key to addressing issues and resolving them before they get worse.

“It’s necessary,” noted state Board of Education member Linda Hansen. “It’s important.”

Wood said her son was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum. He’s found support with the counselors and psychologists at his school.

But she is nervous every time he makes a to-do list, and she doesn’t want other parents to have to go through the same worry.