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Bills for student mental health supports advance through Pa. House committee

Daily Item - 1/19/2024

Jan. 18—HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania lawmakers voted Thursday in support of three bills focused on student mental health, advancing the legislative proposals out of a state House committee and toward a potential floor vote.

The legislative action by members of the House Education Committee followed two days of hearings where testimony by school professionals and education advocates stressed that resources — namely more counselors, social workers and psychologists plus funding — are lacking to meet student mental health needs.

The bills seek to address student mental health in distinctly different ways, creating a baseline for time spent by counselors on direct and indirect work with students, permitting three excused absences for mental health reasons, and promoting the availability of suicide prevention hotlines.

A fourth bill establishing training for high school coaches to identify students potentially in need of mental health support was not brought up for consideration.

Student mental health is oft-cited as a top priority in need of legislative action. In last year's annual report, the Pennsylvania School Board Association found that 71% of school districts reported student mental health needs and staffing shortages and constraints as their biggest challenges.

Last month, Gov. Josh Shapiro signed a finalized budget for 2023-24 that includes $100 million to address mental health in schools. Of that sum, $90 million is allocated for non-competitive grants for public school entities including charters and career and technical centers. The application period opened last week and runs through February.

Counseling, trainingAmong the myriad approved uses are student counseling services, training and compensation for mental health staff including counselors, social workers and psychologists, and the administration of evidence-based screenings of students.

House Bill 1665 would create the School Counseling Services Act. The measure would require schools to develop a comprehensive counseling plan and also require that counselors spend at least 80% of their time engaging in services to students rather than being flexed into other roles because of staffing shortages.

House Bill 1519 would amend the Public School Code to allow up to three student mental health days as excused absences without a doctor's note.

Both bills advanced out of the Education Committee on 14-11 party-line voting with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed.

House Bill 1553 received unanimous support by committee members. It would require that student ID cards from sixth through 12th grade include the local, state or national suicide prevention hotline phone number.

Rep. Napoleon Nelson, D-Montgomery, introduced the bill on student mental health days. He said that if students and parents say it's best for a child to stay home, districts can mark them truant. Some districts currently employ mental health days as excused absences under administrative procedure, he added.

"It is codifying what so many of us already do, which is placing the mental health of our young people at the forefront," Nelson said.

Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford/Fulton, the committee's minority chair, cited hearing testimony that when students miss school, it could be more disruptive than helpful.

"For many of our most at-risk students, being in school might be the best thing for them," Topper said.

Rep. Mandy Steele, D-Allegheny, introduced the proposed Student Counseling Services Act. She said school counselors not only help students achieve academic success but also help provide emotional support.

"Despite all the important roles they play in their jobs, Pennsylvania remains the only state in the nation that has not taken action to ensure that students have access to mental health services," Steele said. "This bill would map out the way in which school counselors spend their time."

Topper referred to ongoing personnel shortages in schools, not only in classrooms but in roles throughout school districts. He said determining the 80/20 split would be challenging, especially for rural school districts. He also cast doubt on whether schools are presently prepared to create districtwide counseling plans.

"I look at this as a very, very burdensome mandate for our school districts that they are not, at this time, prepared to address," Topper said.

"There's no doubt about that," Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, the committee's majority chair, said about workforce shortages in schools. "I'm of the opinion that the longer we wait to implement very real and very specific rules, the longer it'll be until we make any of those substantive changes."


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