Laws address mental health woes at school

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, The Lufkin News, and the Waco Tribune-Herald and the Longview News-Journal.

Millions of Texas public school students have headed back to class, starting a school year that we hope will put each of them on track to reach their potential and continue our state’s prosperity into the next generation. 

Many will have a better chance of succeeding now that the Texas Legislature has passed a number of bipartisan bills recognizing that backpacks and school supplies aren’t the only things students bring with them to school.

Alongside their pencils and notebooks, many students bring to school severe depression, the scars of trauma and other mental health challenges. These challenges are often invisible when a student first walks into a classroom, although trauma and other childhood experiences literally alter the architecture of the brain.

Responding to the growing recognition of these issues, the Legislature passed HB 2684 to improve school police officer training; SB 133 to allow more school personnel to receive student mental health training; SB 674 to require educator certification programs to teach effective strategies for educating children with mental disorders; and HB 2186 to require annual suicide prevention training for teachers.

As these new bills better equip school personnel to identify and appropriately respond to students, everyone will benefit.

Currently, students with serious mental health concerns are more likely to be removed from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons and more likely to drop out of school compared to their peers. Other students may not fall as hard, but have trouble paying attention to algebra as long they are struggling with anxiety. Providing appropriate support to these students can help keep them focused in the classroom and on track to graduate.

Supporting students with mental health challenges also helps all students succeed academically. The Surgeon General reports that in a classroom of 20 students, there are likely to be two children with mental health concerns that severely interfere with their ability to function at home, in school, or in the community. When teachers struggle with these students, the whole class suffers. When teachers have the training to understand their students’ challenges and respond appropriately, they can keep the whole class on track.

The new training can also help prevent situations from escalating to student suspensions, encounters with school police officers, and other outcomes that interrupt student learning and all too often put students on a path to the juvenile justice system. When school resource officers are involved with a student, their new training will help them deescalate and keep everyone safe.

Responding to students in school requires different approaches than responding to adults on the street – especially when students have the invisible scars of trauma or mental illness. These students respond to particular situations or people in ways often labeled as misbehavior or noncompliance. If a school officer restrains a student who has been physically or sexually abused, for instance, it can trigger strong responses that can escalate a situation and cause significant psychological and/or physical harm to a student and others.

New training requirements for teachers will also help keep students physically safe by preventing student suicide. Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death in Texas for youth aged 15-24 and the 3rd leading cause of death for children aged 10-14. Helping teachers identify students at risk of suicide and know where to get help will save students’ lives.

We appreciate the Legislature’s recognition of the invisible challenges that students often bring to school with them. We encourage the Texas Education Agency to help schools connect with training resources and urge school officials to ensure their employees participate in these training and incorporate effective strategies into their work with students.

Josette Saxton is the Senior Policy Associate for Children’s Mental Well-being, Texans Care for Children.