Nearly 300 people have signed up to testify on HB 5001 and SB 2—bills aimed at improving children’s mental health—before the legislature today; many CEA members are among them.
Prior to the pandemic children already faced significant mental health challenges, and, after two years of loss, instability, and disruptions to daily life, it is now becoming widely recognized that there is a mental health crisis among children. Legislators on the Public Health and Children Committees, which held today’s public hearing, said they have a bipartisan commitment to improving mental health supports for children, and sought input from the public on ways to improve the bills that are still being finalized.
“CEA members see what many do not—the effects of student trauma on children and classrooms every day,” CEA Vice President Joslyn DeLancey told legislators. “As an elementary classroom teacher who was in a general education classroom up until June 2021, I have seen these effects firsthand and can attest that the impacts of trauma touch children and classrooms in every district in the state regardless of DRG.”
She continued, “Teachers desperately want to ensure that all students have the supports and care provided to them to address trauma and these negative behaviors, yet our educators do not have the support or resources to address the needs of students who, by no fault of their own, are experiencing trauma. There are insufficient resources to help respond to incidents, and there are little to no resources going to prevention. Additionally, schools do not implement potential solutions (such as trauma informed instruction, restorative practices, etc.) with consistency or fidelity. As a result, teachers are (often) left unsupported when a child cries out.”
“We support HB 5001 and SB 2, and the focus on mental health for children by attracting more social workers and mental health and behavioral specialists,” said CEA President Kate Dias. “However, we urge committee members to include in the bill’s reach proposals to drastically improve the staffing levels among certified school support staff, such as school social workers, school counselors, school psychologists, educators delivering special education, and others. As data we present in this testimony shows, elementary school staffing levels in our less-wealthy districts are abysmal. While these staff all support our students, they do so in unique and important ways. Insufficient staffing persists as a barrier to building successful school communities.”
CREC School Social Worker Jill Soucy explained the lack of resources and overwhelm that she and her colleagues fight every day. “What you don’t see now is that the student needs are more than we are equipped for. We carry walkie-talkies. We manage extremely difficult behaviors resulting in restraints and seclusions. We put out fires all day long. We write behavior plans, IEP goals, and do monthly Medicaid billing. All while trying to be engaged and available to countless students experiencing anxiety, depression, ADHD, eating disorders, etc. Families are reaching out for help and there is nowhere to send them. Agencies are full, hospitals are full. Our caseloads are unmanageable. I leave each day knowing I did the very best I could but that it isn’t nearly enough. There are so many students that need support and there is not enough of our time to go around. And I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg yet.”
“This year has been my most difficult year of the past 19 as an elementary education teacher,” Vernon teacher Chiara Ferraro said. “Forty percent of my students are seriously affected by family trauma (abandonment, violence, foster care), poverty, homelessness, or mental health problems. We have 482 students in our pre-k to 5th grade school. We have two social workers (one dedicated to a special program), one psychologist, and one school climate specialist. We are overwhelmed.”
“Never before have I witnessed this large a number of lonely, disengaged, and worried students,” Mansfield school counselor Eileen Melody told legislators. “Students seek me out to help them de-escalate their anxiety, loneliness, and fear through weekly planned meetings and through crisis, spur-of-the-moment counseling. I have created an office environment in which I provide to my students art, music, talk, and multi-sensory therapies. These options alongside my expertise in delivering them to students enables students to attend school and remain in our building throughout the day. After working with me, students return back to the classroom better able to focus and learn the grade level content.”
“Prior to COVID, we had several students with unaddressed social emotional needs,” said Montville teacher Hollyann Moriarty. “The pandemic has exacerbated these conditions. Students in our school struggle with mental health issues ranging from depression to addiction. These problems greatly affect their ability to be fully present in class and often don’t attend school at all. We desperately need more social workers in school to help our students. Our school district is underfunded as it is, and finding and paying social workers is a huge challenge. Our ability as teachers is directly affected by the large numbers of students in need of mental health support. What you might not be aware of, but is a real problem, is that it is difficult to teach the students who aren’t struggling because of the constant need to direct my attention to the students who are struggling. We need you, our elected officials, to stand up for our students. Get them the help they need now, while we still have contact with them. This is a health and human rights issue, and you need to protect our students.”
“Mental health is not a luxury item,” said Dias. “It is not something we can afford to discount or try to economize with staff. This is an investment that pays dividends far beyond the immediate and obvious. Children who have mental health support become adults who are productive and successful members of our society. At the center of every issue that we will talk about this legislative session is the need to ensure students have access to the support personnel that can help them grow into strong, successful adults.”