Lawmakers leave schools ill-prepared on mental ills

The (Fort Wayne) Journal Gazette

Less than a year after a student shot a classmate and teacher at Noblesville Middle School, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed a school safety bill incorporating recommendations from a task force formed after the shooting.

“Every student, teacher and staff member deserves a safe school,” Holcomb said in a news release. “This new law is key to ensuring our schools are better prepared.”

Better prepared, perhaps. But not best prepared. Bowing to pressure from powerful conservative groups, legislative leaders stripped language from the bill that would have allowed school safety grant dollars for mental health services. Advance America, a special-interest group, claimed in a post-session message to followers that the legislation “would have forced students to answer very personal and inappropriate questions from a federal government survey about their sexual activity — without prior written parental consent!”

In fact, the language reflected recommendations from the months-long work of the governor’s task force and referenced mental health more than 100 times. Task force members rightly observed that enhanced mental health services are key in preventing school violence — ahead of safety equipment, technology, tools and training.

But the outsize influence of a small group of powerful conservatives prompted lawmakers to ignore the counsel of educators and public health and law enforcement officials.

State Superintendent Jennifer McCormick, speaking at Ivy Tech’s Coliseum campus last month, said her Department of Education staff had to “literally beg” to get references to social-emotional learning in any bill. It’s important because educators now recognize students’ success hinges on preparing them for real-world experiences — managing emotions, adapting to change, handling relationships and more.

“There is not an appetite for that,” she said. “Because when you have that conversation, it turns to those who are worried about student human sexuality. What are we going to talk about? What are we going to support?

“We are third in the nation for students who are contemplating suicide. We are second in the nation for students who actually have a plan,” McCormick said. “Our numbers in foster care and homelessness are exploding. Our poverty rate is still going up. We can ignore all that, or we can have an honest conversation about social-emotional learning.”

“There is no greater need in schools today than someone to help teachers, help our kids with mental health issues and social-emotional issues,” said Rep. Wendy McNamara, the author of the bill and a high school principal. “We can put all the locks on the doors … but with those positive relationships we can often avert tragedy before it ever starts.”

The new law allows grants from the state’s safe schools fund to pay for training school personnel in “evidence-based practices that contribute to a positive school environment, including … social-emotional learning.”

McCormick said legislators removed mental health language, with some insisting it’s a “home” issue.

“Well, some of our kids are homeless. Some of our kids don’t have that home support — many of our kids don’t have it,” said the Republican state schools chief.

Those are the students Indiana can’t overlook, not just in promoting school safety, but in ensuring all children — regardless of family background — have the chance to succeed.

A teacher-hero prevented the Noblesville 13-year-old from taking any lives last May. It’s too bad legislators didn’t have the courage to equip schools with the best tools for preventing violence.

Send comments to [email protected].