Educators: After Newtown, lawmakers must help strengthen mental health in schools

Annie Talone works with students, helping them with

Annie Talone works with students, helping them with mental and social challenges of school life at Gorton High School in Yonkers. (Feb. 6, 2013) Photo Credit: Rory Glaeseman

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School counselor Annie Talone returned from a long layoff in February to a bustling guidance office at Gorton High School, with staff members chatting in the lobby and students popping in to check on credits and college issues.

When Talone was laid off in 2011, Yonkers' guidance offices were still just as busy, but there were far fewer support staff members to meet with students. In the 2009-10 school year, the district had 102 counselors, psychologists and social workers. At the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, there were just 40.

Yonkers is typical: Throughout the state, support staff sizes have fallen victim to school budget cuts. Yonkers is also like other districts in rethinking the cuts and undoing some of them.

In the wake of the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn., education leaders in Yonkers and elsewhere are renewing commitments to mental health services for safety's sake. Throughout the Hudson Valley, school leaders have told Newsday they are combing tight budgets to find ways to bring back mental health services, or at the very least maintain what they have without further cuts.

"Newtown sparked more of an awareness and understanding that there is an important need in schools for support staff," Talone said. "I'm hoping the trend now is going to be bringing more of us back."

In Orange County, County Executive Ed Diana has proposed giving $1.2 million to local schools for safety initiatives, including mental health services.

In Hyde Park, administrators are hoping to bring back a position.

"We're reversing the trend as much as we can," said Aviva Kafka, an assistant superintendent for pupil personnel services.

In Yonkers, Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio added back 16 positions during the past two weeks alone -- eight counselors, five psychologists and three social workers. In July, the district will add an additional eight support staffers.

The additions were part of a new contract with the Yonkers Federation of Teachers.

"The bottom line is . . . this is something that's needed on a daily basis in our schools," Pierorazio said.

Still, the district will need financial support from Yonkers' mayor and City Council for the new positions. Teachers union head Pat Puleo said the counselor positions should be seen as an issue of school safety.

"Before Newtown, everybody in the schools understood that something bad could happen, because we've seen it happen," said Puleo, an art teacher in the Yonkers schools. "Newtown told the common citizen that even the schools need some mental health supports. Our elected officials need to recognize this. It's a shame that a tragedy has to happen. But we have to learn."


It's no mystery why counseling jobs have been the target of repeated cuts in the lean years that have followed the Great Recession of 2008. With dwindling resources, schools focused on keeping teachers in the classrooms and chose to shed support staff, including guidance counselors and school psychologists.

Statewide, school districts now have just 3,379 psychologists to serve about 2.7 million students, or roughly one for every 800 kids.

Talone said she noticed the effect on Yonkers students as mental health support staff dwindled. Counselors had less time to help students steer clear of crises and were forced to spend most of their time dealing with incidents that could have been prevented, she said.

It's tough to assess the positive contributions of counselors and psychologists, Talone said, because when they are doing their jobs well, nothing happens.

Some education officials believe that the mass shootings that have taken place in the nation's schools in recent years should have prompted more focus on preventive mental health services rather than gun control.

"We're seeing already, as a result of Newtown, that people are recognizing that we need safety in our schools, but we also need those mental health providers to be able to help those kids who struggle with mental health issues or are in crisis," said Kelly Caci, a school psychologist in Newburgh and president of the New York Association of School Psychologists.


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Although educators long have recognized the importance of support staff, schools, states and the federal government are all strapped for resources.

"It's going to be a huge challenge for school districts to try and balance the needs for safety and the needs for mental health, given the budget constraints for each school district," Caci said.

School leaders who responded to a Newsday survey on mental health services uniformly reported that they can't afford all the mental health services students need. After Newtown, 38 percent of school board members said they didn't believe their students had adequate access to mental health services, according to a survey by the New York State School Boards Association, which brought some 600 responses.

In the Hudson Valley, leaders concerned about tight local budgets have called for state funding for greater mental health staffing.

"It doesn't matter what policies are put into place if there is no funding to follow the mandate," Ann Hall, director of guidance for the Middletown Enlarged City School District, said in a survey response.


Caci and her association advocate a $100 million legislative solution to finance the rehiring of mental health staff members in larger numbers.

The association is backing a bill -- it has languished in the state Legislature since 2007 -- that would enable school districts to claim federal Medicaid reimbursements for work done by school psychologists.

That practice was allowed routinely until a federal decision mandated that only professionals also licensed to practice outside of a school setting could be reimbursed through Medicaid. The bill Caci is backing, sponsored by Senate Education Committee chairman John Flanagan (R-Smithtown), would allow school psychologists to apply for state licenses and qualify for reimbursement.

Assemb. Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers), who sits on the Assembly's Education Committee, said legislators plan to comb through Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's proposed budget and identify areas that they feel are lacking.

"Superintendents, parents and, frankly, mental health professionals are going to be pushing for funding for services in schools," Mayer said. "I think mental health in schools is going to be a very big issue."

Warwick Valley School District Superintendent Ray Bryant said he hopes that mental health overtakes gun control as the key safety issue relating to schools.

"Our solution isn't bars and windows and metal detectors. It's supporting each child in school," Bryant said.

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