School board must do more for mental health
Capital - 1/3/2019
The alarming statistic came over the holidays. You may have missed it.
The number of Anne Arundel County students who have threatened to harm themselves has more than doubled in the past five years.
Anne Arundel County Public Schools officials tracked 1,126 incidents of students threatening self-harm during the 2012-2013 school year. That number jumped to 2,370 last school year.
So, schools Superintendent George Arlotto has proposed adding seven school counselors, three psychologists and three social workers to address what is clearly a significant problem. The price tag: $1.4 million.
It's not enough.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio. Many schools in the county do not meet that standard.
The state's average is 369 counselors for every student. Neighboring states and jurisdictions, like Washington, D.C., Virginia and Pennsylvania, hover around the same average.
There is an appetite for more on the Board of Education, which now must consider and approve Arlotto's budget before sending it on to County Executive Steuart Pittman and the County Council for final adjustments and funding.
Mental health quickly emerged as a school board campaign issue in the months leading up to the 2018 election, the first time board members were chosen at the ballot box. Candidates promised to make mental health a priority for the district and underscored the need to hire more professionals.
Board member Melissa Ellis was among them and was clear that she thinks the school system can do more, labeling the superintendent's recommendation "not ambitious enough."
But other priorities were listed during the campaign as well, with money for pushing back school start times mentioned often and, of course, more teachers and more pay for teachers.
No matter the good intentions of new members of the board, and the priorities of those for whom this is the latest in a series of budget votes, the superintendent drives priorities in school spending. Board members have the ability to push around the edges of spending categories.
Several new members have said they want to do more. They want to hold Arlotto accountable to the public.
We think this is a good place to start.
The superintendent's budget is headed in the right direction with the funds it proposes for students in crisis. It builds on progress made over the last several years in additional mental health resources.
We won't suggest an exact number of additional mental health professionals for schools because we don't know how many the school system can absorb. But bringing the ratio of counselors to students closer to the national standard is a good target.
Adding resources to existing programs is another good idea, such as the Phoenix Academy. Students are transferred to the school in Annapolis so they can learn in an environment that offers help for emotional troubles.
Whatever steps board members ultimately take as they approve a schools budget, it's clear mental health should be a top priority. They must do more.