BISMARCK -- A bill for mandatory behavioral health training in the schools that passed the North Dakota Senate may not be perfect, but it sets a path to streamline support for kids, officials said.
Senate Bill No. 2149, which mandates youth behavioral health training and instruction for staff and teachers, along with educating youth on behavioral health issues, was introduced by Senate Minority Leader Joan Heckaman, D-New Rockford. The bill passed the Senate 44-3 on Feb. 13 and will get a final workup before moving to the House.
“The bottom line is that not all districts are acknowledging the need nor are they doing something,” Heckaman said. “There is an increased awareness this session of the behavior and mental health needs in our schools.”
The bill is student driven and included testimony from a high school student in Heckaman’s district who reached out to her school for help after two failed suicide attempts, she said. The staff were not prepared to respond to her needs and did nothing, including not notifying her parents, she said.
Emergency responders and parents became involved when the girl made a third suicide attempt at school, Heckaman said. But her intervention treatment required a one-hour drive, she said.
Suicide ideation and attempts are on the rise in North Dakota and this is a beginning response, Heckaman said.
The bill requires school districts to provide professional development for staff on youth behavioral health at all grade levels. It requires awareness education for youth in grades 7-12 on issues of trauma, social and emotional learning, suicide prevention, bullying, understanding wellness, behavioral health symptoms and ways to reduce risks.
Robin Lang, assistant director of educational equity and support at the Department of Public Instruction, said she is pleased the bill includes input from students experiencing the range of social emotional issues that affect learning from trauma and bullying to suicide.
“That is huge,” she said.
The cost of providing the training and education would be left to the discretion of the school districts, Lang said.
Each district will have its own priorities, she said. Intervention and prevention strategies for treatment and recovery differ by school and may range from adding a counselor or program to bringing in a trainer or providing community outreach, she said.
In its current form, the bill does not provide funding to school districts, Lang said.
Involving education, human services and the students has helped to better address the gaps in the process, said Pam Sagness, director of the Behavioral Health Division of North Dakota Department of Human Services. The concern now is to ensure that all school districts are able to integrate health and education resources, she said.
Rural school districts often share a part-time counselor with other districts, she said. Families must also travel a great distance for services from rural areas, she said.
“It’s just one of those things that are very different when done in Bismarck and Fargo than when it’s done in Kensal,” Sagness said. “We just don’t want to have global mandates that aren’t going to be meaningful.”
If a child comes forward with an addiction issue, trauma, abuse or suicidal thoughts, people who are trained to recognize that need should be on site to get them connected with a service provider, she said.
“We don’t want more kids who do reach out and then don’t get the effective response,” Sagness said. “They are not going to reach out again.”
School officials across the state are supportive of any improvements to student behavioral health across the state, said Robert Lech, superintendent of Jamestown Public School District. Behavioral health is a complex issue and the needs of schools and students vary, he said.
“We need to ensure to not create mandates that reinforce a one-size-fits-all approach,” Lech said.
Sen. Oley Larsen, R-Minot; Gary Lee, R-Casselton, and Janne Myrdal, R-Edinburg, voted against SB 2149. Larsen said he felt there may be a conflict of interest when the people doing the research are advocating programs with big budgets based on questionable research.
“It has been my experience that these training curriculums say they are evidence based but I have found that they are mostly generated from groups and companies that have an inside track to the funding source,” Larsen said.