In March, Gov. Mike Parson ordered the creation of a task force to recommend ways to enhance safety within Missouri’s K-12 schools. Member Paul Fennewald, a former FBI agent and state Homeland Security Director, says the group took a multi-faceted approach, including recommending the integration of school-based mental health services and healthcare. The report says teachers and administrators are often pressed into serving as mental health caretakers when one is not available.

Missouri panel recommends school-based mental health care to boost safety in schools

The task force’s report says there is an urgent need for effective prevention interventions and the ability to identify youth at-risk for mental illness in schools to connect them with needed treatment and services. It refers to information from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry that says 13% of youth aged 8-15 live with mental illness severe enough to cause significant impairment in their day-to-day lives. This figure jumps to 21% in youth aged 13-18. Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and three quarters by age 24, according to the organization.

“I think we heard again and again at our outreach sessions around the state, schools and even law enforcement and other stakeholders in the community are struggling with figuring out how do we get these resources to people who really need them,” says Fennewald.

The task force also suggests using services to divert youth from the juvenile justice system, including for substance misuse, social skill development, academic support and mentoring.

Members also recommend armed resource officers in every school.

“We focused more so on prevention rather than that issue, which is basically a last resort issue,” Fennewald says. “It needs to be a community decision. I think we have smart people in our state that will make the right decision on where it’s appropriate and where it’s not appropriate.”

According to the report, Florida has spent $400 million to address school safety initiatives. Last year, a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing seventeen students and workers and wounding seventeen others.

For comparison, the Missouri Legislature has budgeted $300,000 this fiscal year for school safety measures. A recent study ranks Missouri last for school safety funding.

Fennewald, a senior policy advisor at the Missouri Center for Education Safety, says funding school safety does not equal safer schools.

“What drove them in other states, such as in Florida, Texas or Colorado, they waited until they had a tragedy. Rather than trying to understand the program and understand that and get their hands around that and talk to stakeholders to get input, they thought maybe just throwing some money at it would solve the problem,” says Fennewald. “It’s about more than just spending money.”

The group engaged the community through outreach sessions, to get feedback from educators, parents, law enforcement and students.

“We tried to understand the problem first before we made any recommendations,” he says.

Members also recommend a high-quality school emergency management plan with portions of the plan shared with emergency responders.

“That is a plan involving all the stakeholders even as they are developing the plan. Those are some things that are the bedrock of a safe and secure school,” he says. “But I think you have to have a good foundation first.”

Additional recommendations include getting a state-level school safety center or coordinator to effectively communicate school safety related information and a student school safety advisory council.

Other task force members include Lieutenant Governor Mike Kehoe, Missouri Public Safety Director Sandy Karsten, State Education Commission Margie Vandeven, Department of Mental Health Director Mark Stringer, Senator Jeanie Riddle of Mokane, Representative Jerome Barnes of Raytown, Melissa Randol of the Missouri School Boards’ Association and Captain Kevin Woodson of the Cole County Sheriff’s Department.

To view the full report, click here.

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