Utah House votes to support $32 million bill that would add more counselors and therapists to schools statewide

(Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, listens to a short debate in the Utah House of Representatives on Monday, March 5, 2012.

A $32 million proposal that would help Utah schools in hiring more therapists passed in the House on Monday despite ongoing concerns about the “pretty big fiscal note.”

HB373 — which has the single largest ongoing funding request for any education measure this session — would spread the money among all public K-12 schools in the state to fund more licensed counselors and nurses, with several districts pointing to a critical shortage. Rep. Steve Eliason, the measure’s sponsor, said it’s specifically intended for schools that have a high number of students who have experienced trauma.

“I believe this is a very important step to help our students who are at risk,” added Eliason, R-Sandy.

The proposed $32 million, still pending final approval, would be given to the Utah Board of Education to run a mental health grant program. To get a share, schools would have to draft a plan based on their needs and prove that they could provide matching funds to improve their services.

The measure comes as Utah’s suicide rate has bumped up almost 50 percent over the past two decades and with youth suicide, in particular, increasing here nearly four times faster than the national average. It is now the leading cause of death for those ages 10 to 17.

In 2018, 39 kids in that age group died by suicide in the state. After lawmakers heard that statistic, the bill passed Monday with a 62-6 vote.

Eliason updated the measure, after it was approved in committee last week, to include a “parental rights” clause that would require a student’s guardian to sign off before the child could attend more than one counseling appointment. Currently, there is no such rule and students can go to as many sessions at school as needed without approval.

Additionally, therapists will be advised to send more serious cases to outside psychologists.

“Schools are not in the business of acting as mental health clinicians,” Eliason said.

The bill would also absorb a similar measure passed last year to allocate $1.2 million to elementary schools for therapists. The lawmaker noted: “That money was quickly oversubscribed to and ran out.”

During a short debate Monday, Rep. Kay Christofferson, R-Lehi, questioned why schools needed so much funding for mental health and whether districts “would rather use that money for something else.”

“It’s just a pretty big fiscal note,” he said, suggesting that parents could use their own insurance or Medicaid to get their child into counseling.

Before voting no, he added: “It seems like more and more we’re asking the schools to do things that typically have been the responsibility of families.”

Eliason noted the bill was supported by the Utah Board of Education and recommended in the governor’s budget. Right now, he said, many teachers are providing mental health care because there’s not enough staff at schools. The point is to allow instructors to focus on the classroom and therapists to help with emotional and behavioral needs that aren’t being met.

It now goes to the Senate for consideration.