CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Several measures designed to better address the social, emotional and behavioral needs of West Virginia’s public school students are included in the proposed Student Success Act members of the state Senate are due to take up this Saturday.
However, Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld (R-Brooke, 01) has indicated it’ll be the 2020 Regular Legislative Session, at the earliest, before lawmakers see a supplementary proposal to roll out the existing Expanded School Mental Health Initiative to schools statewide.
“There are a lot of kids who come from some pretty tough situations and, if we don’t address the issues that they’re facing as a result of their home life, they’re never going to be able to achieve everything that they can as a student in the classroom,” Weld said.
Currently, 40 schools in 20 counties are involved in the Expanded School Mental Health Initiative from the state Department of Health and Human Resources and the state Department of Education that originally started as a pilot program.
All 40 schools have signed on again for the new school year that begins this fall.
In general, participating schools utilize grant funding to address mental health issues with students through early intervention activities plus individual counseling services.
“It really helps address prevention of mental health problems and it really gets to the heart of what we want to do in the school system of preventing future problems,” said Christina Mullins, commissioner for DHHR’s Bureau for Behavioral Health.
Under the program, communities define the needs in their local schools.
“It’s just huge that it is a community-driven effort,” Mullins told MetroNews.
“When we see them with flexibility, within parameters of evidence-based practice and using the best science available, they are defining what they need and we’re seeing really good success with it.”
During the 2018 Fiscal Year, Mullins previously told lawmakers 50 percent of original ESMH middle schools exceeded state behavior standards, compared with 32 percent of all middle schools in West Virginia.
Among high schools, 33 percent of ESMH schools topped the state standard for graduation rates while the percentage was 17 for all high schools.
In all, state officials reported there were more than 9,700 early interventions with at-risk students at ESMH schools and 93,000 total prevention steps dealing with issues like substance abuse and suicide.
“We’re very pleased with the outcomes of the project,” Mullins said. “In the future, we would love to expand it, but that’s all contingent upon funding being available.”
She called money spent on ESMH “an investment in the future that works.”
The cost of the Expanded School Mental Health Initiative is $900,000 annually and, as of now, it’s funded through the next fiscal year.
“I feel what we pay for this program is a small price for the benefits we get from it,” Weld told MetroNews.
He got involved in helping secure funding after hearing directly from Ohio County public school counselors.
Next month, he plans to meet again with DHHR and DOE reps along with counselors from Ohio County and mental health professionals out of Marshall University and West Virginia University to talk about potential target schools for an initiative expansion.
The group initially met earlier in May.
Any expansion, including younger students potentially, could be a supplement to education reform steps taken during this year’s ongoing Special Session.
“This is a deliberate process to identify schools where this could work, where they are ready to take on this sort of responsibility,” Weld said. “It’s more thoughtful process going into this and how we can push this to a statewide level.”