By Viji Sundaram, New America Media
California schools will once again be able to offer mental health programs for students in kindergarten and grades one to three who are struggling with anxiety and other trauma or stress related symptoms, if a bill introduced in the legislature earlier this week passes.
AB 1644 was introduced by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) and is co-sponsored by Children Now, a statewide youth advocacy organization headquartered in Oakland, and by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
“The evidence is clear that when we don’t intervene, many children are more likely to be either victims or perpetrators of crimes,” Harris said in a statement.
“We view early childhood trauma as a public health crisis,” noted Ben Rubin, senior associate of neurodevelopment and health with Children Now. He said adverse childhood experiences (ACE) lead to long-term mental and medical health effects.
Bonta’s bill would restore funding for mental health services that were once offered on 464 school sites around California under the state’s Early Mental Health Intervention (EMHI) program launched in 1992. The state gave matching funds to schools that provided intervention programs. AB 1644 is estimated to cost the state about $1 million a year.
In 2012, the state defunded the program, citing budgetary reasons. Research showed that 79 percent of the children who received those services improved their behavioral and social skills.
According to a Kidsdata.org study, more than half of all California elementary school staff reported that mental health is a problem at their school. And just over 70 percent of the state’s elementary school teachers say that their school “emphasizes helping students with emotional or behavioral problems.”
Early childhood mental health advocates say the teacher training and funding isn’t adequate to support young students who are experiencing symptoms resulting from stress and trauma. In its 2016 California Children’s Report Card, Children Now gave the state a D minus when it comes to spending on assessing and treating children who have mental health challenges.
The Children Now report warns that if kids struggling with mental health disorders don’t get the treatment they need, they are more likely to be hospitalized, drop out of school and become “involved with the justice system.” The report also says that only 40 percent of children under the age of six with mental health issues get the support they need.
California has the highest student-to-counselor ratio in the nation, with an average of 1,016 K-12 students per counselor, according to EdSource. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 to one.
The question of a schools’ responsibility to provide services to students suffering ACE related trauma is at the core of a lawsuit filed against the Compton Unified School District in Los Angeles. Five students and three teachers there have sued the district for allegedly failing to provide adequate training and resources for coping with trauma. The CUSD, the plaintiffs say in the federal lawsuit filed last year, is setting them up for academic failure.
Robert Hull, a school psychologist in Prince George’s County in Maryland, who has extensively researched the impact of complex trauma on childhood development, observed: “There’s a huge number of children walking into kindergarten with trauma. They’re just sitting in the classroom trying to make it through the day, not profiting from the instruction, however good it may be.”
By providing them early intervention, he said, “you are moving them from a survival mode into a learning mode.”
Bonta’s bill would establish a four-year pilot program in schools that are serving students who have experienced high levels of childhood trauma and adversity, expand the EMHI program to include younger children, and provide regional trainings and support to schools on mental health and trauma.