By Ben Thomas
In the aftermath of the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the issues of gun violence and mental health have become part of the national conversation, whether at the dinner table, in the media, or throughout our nation’s capital. Above all, people are seeking solutions to one preeminent question: How do we keep our children safe?
Several legislative measures have been proposed in recent weeks with the goal of improving the safety of our communities and schools and preventing gun violence. In January, President Obama put forth his recommendations in Now Is the Time, a plan to “protect our children and our community by reducing gun violence.”
While the President’s plan focuses heavily on gun control, it also includes several proposals designed to improve school climate and mental health services. One proposal would appropriate $50 million to help 8,000 schools train school staff to implement evidence-based programs that lead to more nurturing school climates. The plan also proposes funding to help schools improve student referrals for mental health services ($40 million), hire school resource officers, psychologists, and social workers ($150 million), and train teachers to detect and respond to mental illness ($15 million). This push to promote and enhance school mental health is also gaining traction in Congress.
Recognizing the success of the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) Initiative—a comprehensive, data-supported approach, implemented in hundreds of communities across the United States, that aims to reduce youth violence and create healthy, safe school environments—Senator Franken (D-MN) introduced the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2013 (S. 195) days after the President’s plan was released. This bill would expand the SS/HS grant program, provide for comprehensive staff development for school mental health professionals, and fund training for those in the community who care for or work with children who have mental health disorders.
Sen. Franken’s bill mirrors the Mental Health in Schools Act (H.R. 628) introduced in the last four Congresses by Representative Napolitano (D-CA, 38th District). Both bills would appropriate $2 million annually for five years for the SS/HS Initiative and provide funding of up to $1 million to grantees. Sen. Franken’s bill was referred to the Senate committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, and it currently has 11 cosponsors, while Rep. Napolitano’s bill was referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce with 45 original cosponsors.
There is no single, immediate solution that will prevent future tragedies such as Sandy Hook, or end the violence that some students cope with on a daily basis. But by focusing on the intersection of mental health and youth violence, building community partnerships, and advancing data-driven decisions, we know that SS/HS has made big strides in schools and communities around the country and that other communities can learn from its challenges and successes. As President Obama said following the events at Sandy Hook, “We won’t be able to stop every violent act, but if there is even one thing that we can do to prevent any of these events, we have a deep obligation—all of us—to try.”
For further information, see The Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative: A Legacy of Success. You may also want to refer to The ABC’s of Educating Policymakers.
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