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Mental health in schools is at a tipping point. Here is what needs to happen

May 26, 2017 | By Octavio Martinez Jr.

It happens more often than people realize.

A student in middle school starts behaving disruptively in class. The teacher tries to manage the situation by balancing the young person’s needs with those of the other students, while maintaining a safe learning environment for all.

But the situation soon gets out of hand. It ends with the student being led out of the classroom, in handcuffs, by a school police officer.

In Texas, a recent report by Texans Care for Children and Texas Appleseed found that of the 72 school districts that supplied data from 2011 to 2015, officers arrested students 29,136 times and issued 41,304 tickets or complaints — overwhelmingly for low-level, school-based behaviors.

It might sound like a cliché to say that teaching is a stressful job. But behind the cliché lies a grim reality: Overburdened teachers dealing with a variety of issues in the classroom, including unaddressed mental health needs, often resort to punitive measures that alienate kids from school and feed the “school-to-prison” pipeline.

This reality is the result of a failure to give teachers the resources and support they need to respond differently.

According to one systematic review, students who receive positive behavioral health interventions see improvements on a range of behaviors related to academic achievement.

This means not only better test scores and grade-point averages, but “increased on-task learning behavior, better time management, strengthened goal setting and problem solving skills, and decreased rates of absenteeism and suspensions.”

The evidence is clear. Addressing mental health in schools fosters a climate that is healthier for kids, more supportive of teachers, and lowers costs to the state — what we pay in dropouts and future incarceration — over the long run.

Just as there is a wealth of evidence for a relationship between behavioral health interventions and improved academic outcomes, there is also a wealth of evidence for the costs of doing things the usual way.

Students who are expelled or suspended are up to 10 times as likely to drop out of high school, experience academic failure and grade retention, hold negative attitudes about school or end up incarcerated as those who are not, according to a joint statement by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These costs are borne most heavily by certain groups: black students, boys and students with special needs.

For any child, the effect of being labeled “bad” or a “problem” continues through life, affecting social-emotional development, identities and relationships with peers and adults.

For children whose behavioral problems are the result of unrecognized trauma caused by past abuse and neglect, this amounts to a double punishment.

These are not the outcomes we seek for our children. It’s time for school districts to adopt age-appropriate, research-based positive behavior interventions that keep young students in the classroom where they belong.

At the state, district and school levels, we should be vocal in our support of those who are working to improve mental health in schools.

At Crockett High School in Austin, for example, an innovative collaboration with Vida Clinic, a local mental health organization, has created a culture change that is sensitive to both the emotional vulnerabilities of students and the wellness needs of teachers and faculty members.

Teachers are given a toolkit of easy-to-apply skills that enable them to center their own wellness while still being present for their students.

This goes well beyond the usual platitudes and advice — or leaving teachers to their own devices to cope with challenging situations.

Disruptive students can certainly be a challenge. Rather than putting all the responsibility on teachers, we need to put structures in place that support the behavior change and culture shift that we’re advocating for.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and, with growing support for mental health in Texas, the time couldn’t be better for us to take this on as a community.

Ending discretionary out-of-school suspension for pre-K through second-graders would be a step in the right direction.

Texans who care about their schools and the mental health of youths should insist that policymakers and educators work together to create change for teachers, parents and kids.

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