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Utah House committee endorses bill to target $32.1M for school mental health, support services

FILE - Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, speaks during the Utah Taxpayers Association 2018 Legislative Outlook Conference, Monday, Jan. 8, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — There is an acute need for more mental health providers and other support personnel in schools, educators and community members told the House Education Committee on Thursday.

"Tragically, in our school district, we've had four suicides in the last 10 months of our students. We have a tremendous need," said Sevier School District Superintendent Cade Douglas.

"We're doing everything we can think of. We are implementing every program we can possibly come up with," said Douglas, who leads a school district of 4,685 students.

Two years ago, the school district "scraped together" funding for a licensed social worker to serve five elementary schools.

"We're having tremendous success, but he's spread so thin," Douglas said.

The district needs another licensed clinical social worker and three therapists for its secondary students, he said.

FILE - The Utah Legislature goes into session Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
FILE - The Utah Legislature goes into session Monday, Dec. 3, 2018, in Salt Lake City.
Rick Bowmer, Associated Press

Douglas urged committee members to support HB373, sponsored by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, which would appropriate to the Utah State Board of Education more than $32.1 million ongoing for school support personnel or permit schools to contract with local mental health authorities for students who need clinical services.

"Our goal is to hire immediately using these funds," Douglas said.

Eliason said HB373 would build upon the efforts of previous legislation he sponsored to provide matching grants to schools to hire more school counselors.

Under HB373, "qualifying personnel" would include school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers or school nurses.

These professionals will collaborate with educators and a student's parents on early identification and intervention of the student's academic and mental health needs.

Some students may benefit from school-based services while others may need clinical services offered in their communities by professionals trained to diagnose conditions, provide treatment and in some cases prescribe medication.

In Carbon County, a flyer was sent home to parents asking if they would like their child to undergo mental health screening.

"I believe 90 percent of parents opted in voluntarily," Eliason said.

The school district worked in partnership with its local mental health authority to refer students with more intensive needs to community-based providers and worked with students with lesser needs at school.

Most members of the public who spoke to the bill said they support it, including the Utah PTA, a pediatrician and the Disability Law Center of Utah, along with the Utah Education Association and professional organizations that represent school boards, superintendents and school business administrators.

"My only regret about this bill is, it's long overdue," said Eliason.

Those who spoke in opposition, including committee member Rep. Adam Robertson, R-Provo, expressed concerns that the initiative would encroach on parental rights. Robertson cast the lone vote against recommending HB373 to the House for its consideration.

"We need to make sure we don't get in the way of parental rights," Robertson said. While some district's have an opt-in mechanism, it is just as important to have a means to opt out, he said.

"I want to make sure the parents are in the driver seat with our children," Robertson said.

Superintendent Douglas said school districts respect the role of parents.

"There's not a school district in the state that would do anything with mental health without fully involving the parents in the process," he said.