Two bills addressing school safety and expanding access to students’ mental health were unveiled at the New Jersey Assembly last week. Both were presented a day after 19 elementary school children and two of their teachers were killed by a gunman in Uwalde, Texas on May 24.
“I really believe that if we focus on students who are actually in crisis and acting, and through crisis and action, they are creating problems, disrupting other students’ school or play.” said Patricia Lampit, chairman of the state education committee, D-Camden. “We really need to identify and have the right people around the table to have a conversation,” she said
Lampitt is sponsoring Bill A4075 with Bill Moyen, D-Camden, that if passed by the House and Senate and signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, it will require New Jersey public schools to set up threat assessment teams to identify students who may pose a security risk.
Lampit said efforts to pass safety and mental health laws began after school shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut and Parkland, Florida, and when lawmakers tried to tackle bullying and bullying in schools.
Threat Assessment Bill
A working group at each school will be able to bring together the right people around the table to say that a child who has problems in different areas may need support in different directions, Lampit said.
A4075 was not adopted by the Assembly, but members adopted an amendment to it, and Lampit said he expected it to continue and pass.
The proposed legislation requires threat assessment teams consisting of a school psychologist or counselor, a teacher, a school resource officer, a principal or administrator, and a school safety specialist.
Team members will be trained to understand and identify child trauma. The bill also requires the U.S. Department of Education to work with state law enforcement agencies and the State Homeland Security and Preparedness Service to develop guidelines and policies on how the team should identify students who pose a threat to the community or to themselves. An accompanying bill was put to a vote Monday in the Senate Education Committee.
A 15-year-old student at Watchung Hills Regional High School was detained on Tuesday and charged with verbally threatening the school over the phone. The school entered a blockade after receiving the threat on May 25, the day after the shooting in Uwalde. The caller told school officials he was in a school bathroom with a gun and would shoot at the school at the next bell, said Somerset County Attorney General Annie Taggart.
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Police conducted an “extensive search” and found the threat unreliable. Taggart said it had been found that the teenager had created videos in which he hurt a family pet. He is in custody at the Middlesex County Youth Detention Center and will appear in Family Court.
Bill on access to mental health
Bill A4086l was passed unanimously in the Assembly and is addressed to the State Senate for a vote. If approved and signed by Murphy, he will instruct school counselors to refer students who need mental health services beyond what the school has to offer to private professionals. The language in the bill states that the student’s costs for private counseling or therapy will not be paid by the state, which raises the question of how effective this measure will be.
Many private professionals do not participate in health insurance plans, passing the costs on to students’ families. Despite laws requiring mental health benefits to be treated similarly to physical health, the lack of options in the mental health and substance use network could affect access to services for those with private health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In 2019 and 2020, 12.7% of 12- to 17-year-olds in New Jersey reported having a major depressive episode, compared with 6.2% of those aged 18 and over, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 10.6% of children aged 3 to 17 in the state have received mental health care, slightly less than 10.8% of children in the rest of the country.
The state’s access to mental health care is above the national average, but 40% or 129,000 of New Jersey adults whose mental health needs are not met say it is due to costs. This was similar to 39.7% or 6.1 million in the United States who did not receive adequate mental health care.
The bill requires parents to give consent before private therapy is given to a student recommended by the school team.
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School counselors can now direct students to outside help, but may be reluctant to do so because some parents and taxpayers believe care should be managed within schools, Lampit said. School counselors are not equipped to deal with diagnoses that need specialized attention, such as bipolar disorder, Lampit said. This law will codify the permission to refer students to external sources.
“Our advisers know their limits,” Lampit said, adding that they had asked for this support from lawmakers during meetings.
Lampit co-sponsored the bill with representatives Louis Greenwald D-Camden and Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset).
“This supports their efforts to be able to move a person in crisis to the next person and a transfer to take place, instead of saying, ‘I’m too busy, I can’t take you,'” Lampit said.
Similar measures have been considered before, but the shooting in Uwalde created an urgency that stimulated the publication of the bills. “We do this on a normal basis, but certainly, unfortunately, when there is a crisis, it attracts a little more attention,” Lampit said.
Such a bill did not enter the Senate for a vote after it was introduced in July 2020. It passed the assembly last year in March 2021.
On Thursday, a third bill requiring state colleges and universities to create programs and train staff to recognize depression and prevent suicide on campus was passed unanimously by the Assembly.
The Senate State Education Committee will consider a bill next week that requires schools to provide remote mental health sessions to children in need.
Mary Ann Corutt covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey schools and how they affect your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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