New law earmarks millions towards hiring mental health personnel in public schools

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Governor Roy Cooper recently signed HB 75 into law, which is aimed at enhancing mental health personnel access and staffing in public schools.

It earmarks $20 million in recurring funds for the 2019-2020 fiscal year and $23 million in recurring funds for the 2020-2021 fiscal year to the Department of Public Instruction, with the intention of hiring school psychologists, school counselors, school nurses, and school social workers.

"I think that if you're going to put more dollars into schools to help them get more school psychologists, and more mental health counselors, that's a good thing," said Keith Poston, the father of a Wake County Public Schools graduate and the Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

The funding comes at a critical time for the state. A February 2019 report from advocacy group NC Child and the North Carolina Institute of Medicine showed teen suicide rates in the state have nearly doubled since 2010.

"Children are coming to school with a lot of baggage, and a lot of emotional issues. Some of it is related to poverty and trauma. The more help our schools can get to help those students, not only will that benefit those students themselves, it will help the teachers," Poston said.

North Carolina public schools have a current ratio of about 2,000 students for one school psychologist, far above the recommended ration of 700 students for one school psychologist.

While Poston is encouraged by the legislation, he believes more needs to be done to address the overall mental health problem in schools.

"The bill is a start, but the money is not enough to make up the difference. There is some recurring dollars, but what our schools need is a sustained investment over time," said Poston.

The legislation also provides millions in funding for the training and hiring of school resource offices, safety equipment, and commissions studies to review mental health personnel staffing levels statewide.

"Leadership and the regular appropriators in the House will take this as a line item for years to come. So we've elevated the situational awareness for school safety so it will become a mainstay in the budgeting process each and every year," said Rep. John Torbett, a primary sponsor of the bill.

Rep. David Lewis, a primary sponsor of HB 75, said lawmakers are working on additional bills to address the existing shortcomings.

"We're trying to continue to advance this area of policy in the right direction. So never have we held out that we're done," Rep. Lewis explained.

Rep. Lewis pointed to HB 678, which would provide reciprocity for social workers who received their accreditation out of state. It has passed the House, but a companion bill, SB 300, has not been brought up for a vote in the Senate.
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