HARRISBURG (AP) — Amid a growing population of youth experiencing mental health crises, as well as another spate of mass shootings around the country, Pennsylvania lawmakers are prioritizing mental health services in this year’s budget by approving a first-time line item of $100 million for in-school support.
Invoking the recent tragedies in Texas and Illinois, Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, said that through the funding, the state will try to tie together mental health and safety and security “so there are not people who fall through the cracks.”
Every school district in the state will receive $100,000 as a base grant and charter school entities will receive $70,000.
In addition, the state’s Safety and Security fund, which was established in 2018 to improve physical school safety after the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, will also receive $100 million. The funds have historically been used for upgrading security — including adding cameras, safe entrances and personnel to school buildings.
For educators, addressing mental health is necessary to ensuring children are in a good place to learn, said John Callahan, chief advocacy officer for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association. The funding from the state will help schools address mental health proactively and preventatively, as a way to engage students before it rises to the level of a crisis.
Callahan said that school districts have been addressing mental health needs in various ways, including increasing the number of school counselors and school psychologists, which can be pricey with salary and benefits. Others rely on contracting out those services, including one district that is using a telephone service to provide student support.
Many schools districts, he said, also work closely with their counties’ behavioral health services. But with strain placed on staffing at the county level, service wait times can stretch to three weeks.
The mobile crisis unit in Bucks County, for example, was “gutted over the course of the pandemic,” and operating at significantly lower capacity, according to Donna Duffy-Bell, administrator of the Bucks County Behavioral Health/Development Programs.
“I’m sure the schools, as well as the general community, felt the impact of that limited capacity,” she said.