During the last legislative session, state lawmakers passed two bills that are bringing more mental health professionals into schools across the state. Reno Public Radio’s Noah Glick has that story.
Amber Reid is a social worker for the Washoe County School District. This year, she is joined by four new contract social workers, part of the state’s push to improve mental health services in schools, something she says is critical for improving student achievement.
“Kids are experiencing trauma and we plop them in a classroom and ask them to take this standardized test and do well. It’s not a fair fight,” Reid says. “When we can support them in those other components of their life then they have a much higher chance of being successful academically.”
In recent memory, the Washoe County School District has endured a shooting at Sparks Middle School and multiple student suicides. Beyond the obvious need, lawmakers and school officials are banking on the idea that a safe learning environment will boost academic scores for a state ranked dead last in education.
“We deal a lot with substance abuse and substance use among youth. We also see things like students who might be feeling suicidal, or might be having other types of struggles. We want to be able to provide them with services and supports to help them with their academics, so that they can graduate.”
That’s Katherine Loudon, the director of counseling for the district. She says social workers help students and families get support in school and in the community.
“Often times, they need connection to the outside agency and organization, some follow up, some direct assistance,” Loudon says, “And so school social work helps ensure that a lot of those families make connections to services and that they receive that follow up and support.”
Fran Zito is a licensed clinical social worker in Reno and at one time was the only social worker inside Washoe schools.
“Well you get there about 7:15 in the morning, and it starts,” Zito says. “You need roller skates; you need hovercrafts; you need helicopters; you need security; you need an interpreter. You need everything that you don’t have. It’s just you and them.”
Zito says the need for more mental health professionals is profound.
“It’s like the military; they’re the front line; they’re going in. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people that were students that I never met, that slipped through the cracks. I don’t care who they put in there, because it needs to happen.”
Last year, lawmakers passed two bills to address this issue. One established the Office of Safe and Respectful Learning Environments. The other gave that office $5.5 million for contract school social workers, which had to be split up among districts.
Victoria Blakeney is with the newly-formed office, and she says if lawmakers see improvements, they’ll renew the program in June.
“They’ve set aside another $11 million that they are waiting to hear from us,” Blakeney says, “And if we can prove to them that we were successful, then they’ll release another $11 million, so we’ll have another year.”
To measure success, the state created a school climate survey, which gave all schools who applied for social workers a score out of 100, based on responses from students and a written narrative from the school.
But Katherine Loudon with the Washoe County School District says there’s one major challenge moving forward: workforce.
“Even if we said, OK, 63 elementary schools, and we applied for 63 social workers, I don’t know that our community has that workforce just yet,” Loudon says.
Blakeney says this is why lawmakers used generic language when defining what types of mental health professionals districts could hire.
“It specifically said social workers but it also says other mental health professionals,” Blakeney says, “So we call it the social workers grant, but it’s not just social workers.”
The goal is to give districts enough flexibility to start supporting their kids right away, by expanding on the efforts of social workers like Amber Reid.