The state’s new K-12 public school mental health plan faces strong opposition from state lawmakers who say they won’t support its proposal to scrap the program a decades-old school-based youth service provider that provides essential counseling and support to adolescents in underperforming districts. .
The School Based Youth Services program, implemented in 90 of the state’s public schools, is set to be phased out by June 2023 to make way for NJ4S, New Jersey Statewide Student Support Service Network, an expanded and revamped system that would be accessible to all. or most of the 2,400 schools in the state.
Unveiled in October as a “first in the country” effort to centralize services and expand them beyond schools and into libraries, group homes and social service agencies, NJ4S had been in the works for more than a year. and created in response to the teen mental health crisis caused by the pandemic under the direction of the Commissioner of the Ministry for Children and Families, Christine Norbut Beyer.
But it immediately came under heavy criticism from educators and advocates who support expanding services but say proven school programs must also stay.
“I hear what you are saying, and rest assured this is not an issue that we are going to give up on,” MP Mila Jasey, D-Essex, told guests in a virtual meeting convened by the Joint Committee. on public schools. , a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers, to discuss the impact of losing the current program.
Shortly after the meeting, Jasey introduced Bill A4808, which, if approved, would retain the current school curriculum and provide services to at-risk middle and high school students in the same manner as the current curriculum. currently provides.
The bill also directs the Department for Children and Families to contract with an “independent entity” to conduct an “assessment of the school-based youth services program.” The entity will be required to submit a final report to the commissioner on the effectiveness of the program and its impact on student health, no later than six months after contract award, the bill says.
NJ4S reinvents the current model of school-related services through a hub-and-spoke system. The hubs, located in 15 court districts, will implement programs in schools, social service agencies, residential facilities, libraries and community centers.
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The Legislature’s Latino and Black caucuses support maintaining school services, said Senate Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who briefly attended the meeting. “We definitely want every child in New Jersey who needs mental health resources to get them,” she said, “but not at the expense of losing what we have in place.”
Republican Senator Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, called for a bipartisan effort to stop the Department for Children and Families from cutting the programs.
Stakeholders asked to see the data used by the Ministry of Children and Families to justify the elimination of school programs.
Save Our Schools NJ executive director Julie Larrea Borst, an advocate for community schools, said it appears the Department of Children and Families isn’t a fan of the current program and has spent the past two years trying to find a way to get rid of it. .
The state cut budget funding for the program in 2020, but after intense pressure from advocates during the pandemic, the funds were reinstated.
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“It’s not an equity issue because other districts didn’t have it, it’s an equity issue because you’re taking programs away from black and Latino students,” Borst said.
She was responding to Norbut Beyer’s comment that the current model only provides services to 2% of schools and that NJ4S would provide much needed equity.
Norbut Beyer did not stay at the meeting. She logged out after advocating for the new school-related services program, saying the pandemic has created an opportunity for ‘innovation’ and ‘bold new thinking’. She also said current SBYS programs would remain in schools.
However, meeting participants said they did not accept assurances that the programs would continue. NJ4S will cost about $16 million more than the current program, according to state projections.
One-time costs of setting up data systems and hubs will come from pandemic relief funds, via the US bailout.
Getting services to 2,400 schools instead of just 90 seems like a no-brainer, said MP Annette Chaparro, D-Hudson, but that’s not accurate, she added, because there aren’t enough money for it.
West Windsor Schools Superintendent David Aderhold said expanding services to include all schools is a waste of taxpayers’ money because wealthier districts like his can afford to have their own integrated programs.
He said he attended the meeting to argue that the expansion of services is unnecessary. He said 100% coverage is not needed in Mercer County if it comes at the expense of Ewing and Trenton, where current services are available. Cutting services from these two districts is “criminal”, he said. A budget allocation for mental health programs in non-critical schools and communities would be sufficient to meet their needs.
“I don’t know how they’re going to get these things up and running by July 1,” Borst said, referring to the state’s plan for NJ4S to go into effect at the start of the 2023 school year- 23. Lawmakers should ask the state to provide a timeline for next year, including when it issues requests for proposals for services, said Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, D-Essex.
Many questions were also asked about data and transparency.
Jasey, O’Scanlon and others said not enough people were told a new program was in the works. Most found out from the October announcement, they said.
Some have questioned whether the state’s data collection is scientific and warrants elimination from school curricula.
A survey was conducted during the pandemic when the children weren’t in school, Borst said. She said it was no surprise the children ticked off their preferences for remote services, as they were all remote anyway.
The investigations, many said, were unscientific and did not support multimillion-dollar change based solely on the state’s assertion that it will work. It’s “a pie in the sky,” Borst said of the new services.
Aligning hubs with court neighborhoods could criminalize young people and put them in touch with the courts, said Melanie Grant, who runs the youth program at Trenton Central High School. “We don’t want to send our teenagers to court, we want to keep them in school,” she said.
Anxiety, suicidal ideation, abandonment and peer relationships are the main problems that adolescents face.
Services at school, said one speaker, have included many unexpected emergencies, including accompanying a traumatized student to church to explain what to expect at a funeral; go see a student who swallowed a bottle of pills and didn’t know what to do; sitting with a child in the palliative care unit of a hospital as their friend lay dying; and spending a day in the emergency room while a teenage parent waits for their baby to receive care.
Ed Tetelman, a lawyer and former deputy commissioner of the state Department of Human Services who is credited with creating the current school curriculum, said he tried to talk Norbut Beyer out of it a year ago. two years, when the department began discussions.
“I spoke to the commissioner two years ago when she tried to scrap the program, and she said, well, times have changed,” he said.
Norbut Beyer was more concerned with her legacy than preserving the services, Tetelman said this week. Don’t eliminate the program so abruptly, he told lawmakers at the meeting, because some students are “certain to perish.”
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