Two bills that address school safety and expand students’ mental health access advanced in the New Jersey Assembly last week. Both were introduced a day after 19 elementary school children and two of their teachers were killed by a gunman in Uvalde, Texas on May 24.
“I really truly believe that if we focus on the students that actually are having a crisis, and are acting out, and through the crisis and acting out, they are causing problems, they are disrupting other students school or play,” said state Assembly Education Committee Chair Patricia Lampitt, D-Camden. “We really need to determine and have the right people around the table to have a conversation,” she said
Lampitt co-sponsored bill A4075 with Rep. Bill Moen, D-Camden, that if passed by the state House and Senate and signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy will require New Jersey public schools to create threat assessment teams to identify students who may pose a security risk.
Lampitt said efforts to get laws passed to address safety and mental health began after the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and Parkland, Florida, school shootings, and as lawmakers tried to address harassment and bullying in schools.
Threat assessment bill
A task force in every school would be able to bring the right people around the table to say that a child who has been having problems in different areas might need support in a different direction, said Lampitt.
A4075 has not passed in the Assembly, but members adopted an amendment to it and Lampitt said she expects it to advance and pass.
The proposed legislation calls for threat assessment teams that would consist of a school psychologist or counselor, a teacher, a school resource officer, a principal or administrator and the school’s safety specialist.
The members of the team would be trained in understanding and identifying childhood trauma. The bill also requires the state Department of Education to work with state law enforcement agencies and the state Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness to create guidelines and policies on how the team should identify students who are a danger to the community or to themselves. A companion bill is up for a vote on Monday in the Senate Education Committee.
A 15-year-old Watchung Hills Regional High School student was detained Tuesday and charged with making a verbal threat to the school by phone. The school went into lockdown mode after it received the threat on May 25, the day after the Uvalde shooting. The caller told school officials he was in a school bathroom with weapons and was going to shoot up the school at the next bell, said Somerset County Acting Prosecutor Annie Taggart.
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Police conducted an “extensive search” and determined the threat was not credible. Taggart said the teen was found to have created videos of himself harming a family pet. He is in custody at the Middlesex County Youth Detention Center and will appear in Family Court.
Mental health access bill
Bill A4086l passed in the Assembly unanimously and is headed to the state Senate for a vote. If it passes and is signed into law by Murphy, it would instruct school counselors to refer students who need mental health services beyond what the school can offer, to private professionals. The language in the bill states the student’s costs for private counselling or therapy would not be paid for by the state, raising a question of how effective this measure will be.
Many private professionals do not participate in health insurance plans, passing the expense on to the students’ families. Despite laws that require mental health benefits to be treated similarly to physical health, a lack of in-network options for mental health and substance-use care can affect access to services for those with private health insurance, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
In 2019 and 2020, 12.7% of 12- to 17-year-olds in New Jersey reported having a major depressive episode compared to 6.2% of those 18 and older, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. About 10.6% of children ages 3 to 17 in the state received mental health care, slightly less than the 10.8% of children in the rest of the country.
The state’s access to mental health care is above the national average, but 40% or 129,000 of New Jersey adults whose mental health needs were not met said it was due to the cost. This was similar to the 39.7% or 6.1 million in the United States that did not get the mental health care they needed.
The bill requires parents to consent before private therapy is provided to a student referred by the school’s team.
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School counselors are already able to refer students to outside help, but may be hesitant to do so because some parents and taxpayers feel the care should be managed within the schools, Lampitt said. School counselors are not equipped to handle diagnoses that need specialized attention, such as bipolar disorder, said Lampitt. This law would codify the authorization to refer students to outside sources.
“Our counselors know their limits,” said Lampitt, adding they have asked for this support from lawmakers in meetings.
Lampitt co-sponsored the bill with Reps. Louis Greenwald D-Camden, and Sadaf Jaffer (D-Somerset).
“This supports their effort to be able to move a person in crisis to the next person and a hand-off to happen, as opposed to saying ‘my workload is too much, I can’t take you on’,” Lampitt said.
Measures like this have been considered before, but the shooting in Uvalde created an urgency that spurred the bills’ posting. “We do this on a normal basis, but certainly, unfortunately, when there is a crisis, it garners a little more attention,” said Lampitt.
A similar bill did not make it to the Senate floor for a vote after it was introduced in July 2020. It passed the assembly last year in March 2021.
On Thursday, a third bill, which requires state colleges and universities to create programs and train staff to recognize depression and prevent suicides on campus, passed unanimously in the Assembly.
The state Senate Education Committee will consider a bill next week that requires schools to provide mental health sessions remotely to children who need them.
Mary Ann Koruth covers education for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about New Jersey’s schools and how it affects your children, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.