(The Center Square) — Mental health experts on Wednesday provided numerous recommendations to a legislative task force focused on addressing Louisiana’s student behavior and mental health crisis.
Cade Canepa, health equity fellow at the Louisiana Center for Health Equity, and Alma Stewart Allen, president of the center, outlined more than two dozen key recommendations for the Louisiana Student Behavior, Mental Health, and Discipline Task Force, including nine that require action lawmakers should consider in the upcoming session.
The work comes amid widespread research showing the massive impact government-imposed pandemic school closures have had on student learning and mental health. Statistics show Louisiana students are particularly vulnerable, with one in four living in poverty, one in five with three or more adverse childhood experiences, and one in 10 suspended from school every year.
The task force was created through a resolution during the 2022 session to study current trauma-informed services in public schools, as well as issues like psychologist staffing, corporal punishment, discipline policies and “willful disobedience” in school discipline.
The suggestions, developed through six public meetings with stakeholder experts, students and the public, include what Canepa described as a “bellwether recommendation” to allow mental health as an excused absence for students.
“We believe that the stance that members of the legislature and the resistance we may face … should tell us a lot about the views and the sense of importance that the legislature has about this issue,” he said.
Current law limits excused absences to mental or behavioral illnesses that are certified in writing.
Another suggestion involves coordinating school based health centers that are currently managed through two different systems.
“What we’re hoping to accomplish … is to have all of these centers registered under the office of public health so that way we can have some record-keeping of these centers, where they are, and the services provided by them,” Canepa said.
Other recommendations requiring legislative action include required mental health instruction for students. Another recommendation was a review of corporal punishment, willful disobedience and zero tolerance policies by the Louisiana Department of Education.
The latter would allow officials to study the effects of the policies in areas where they’re used and banned, as well as the rates of usage, Canepa said.
Experts also recommended lawmakers revise the Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Disciple to make it more effective, and to develop a definition of “willful disobedience” lacking in state law, as well as definitions of roles for other support professionals in schools.
“We heard that mental health responsibilities are being given to guidance counselors, especially in high schools,” Canepa said, adding that students are concerned the situation could impact their future academic plans.
The report also suggested funding for the Louisiana Resources and Educational Assessments for Children’s Health program to pilot trauma-informed mental health services and develop implementation strategies, and requested lawmakers continue the task force’s work.
Another 16 recommendations outlined Wednesday do not require legislative action, including quiet spaces in schools, mental health screenings during school health screenings, a centralized mental health repository of providers and organizations, maximizing school-based Medicaid services and other data collection and school staff training measures.
Allen also highlighted $32 million in federal pandemic relief for mental health services that’s set to expire in 2024, as well as “broader mental health capacity challenges” tied to the workforce and pending litigation.
“The potential fiscal cliff when those funds cease in 2024 could further exacerbate the problem and create further crisis in providing and meeting the needs of those students,” she said of the limited federal funding. “Urgent actions are required to address the mental health crisis.”