Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven says there are essential ingredients that schools need to be successful. During a Missouri House subcommittee hearing, Vandeven says one ingredient is not enough. The department is refocusing its priorities to include additional avenues to ensure safe and healthy schools, early learning and early literacy and teacher recruitment and retention.

Missouri Education Commissioner Margie Vandeven

“If you leave out sugar in a cake, for example, you can have the best flour but you’re still going to have a flop,” she says. “You have to think of education in that way too. We’ve got to focus on early learning. We have to have great teachers. We need to make sure they’re future-focused and thinking about ‘How will I apply these skills today and later to make sure our students are engaged in the actual learning process?’ The parental involvement cannot be underestimated – it is a key factor to a child’s success and a school’s success.”

One of the ingredients Vandeven says teachers are “hungry” for help with is addressing the mental health needs of students.

Representative John Black, R-Marshfield, says there should be a universal plan to deal with students facing mental health problems.

“They (schools) want help developing a mechanism to deal with this issue and it’s not being done. You go to one school – they’re trying to do it this way. You go to another school and they’re trying to do it another way,” says Black.

Black, an attorney, cites some schools using federally funded social workers, paying for social workers or professional counselors themselves, or having counselors pick up the slack.

Representative Ingrid Burnett, D-Kansas City, a longtime educator, says bureaucracy is a problem in getting students help sooner rather than later.

“It becomes a 12 to 16 week process gathering data to prove that what we’re trying to do that we know these children need,” she says.

Representative Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, says providing mental health support in schools is not the job of educators.

“Would it be better for us to look at the Department of Mental Health and say ‘You guys need to figure this out’? DESE needs to work out the access points but it’s not DESE that needs to fix the behavioral health problems of the children of the state of Missouri, nor a local school. It’s Department of Mental Health and quite frankly and more importantly, it’s the parents,” he says.

Representative Allen Andrews, R-Grant City, thinks the state needs a bigger approach to addressing the growing mental health needs of Missourians.

“Somewhere we’re losing our society,” he says. “We can continue to kick this can down the road and keep trying to figure out how we’re going to keep spending more and more money on these growing problems that are happening exponentially. Somewhere some way, the can is going to stop rolling.”

In another budget committee hearing, Representative Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, says she thinks there’s too much emphasis on policing schools and not enough caring for students.

A statewide school safety task force created last year recommended the integration of school-based mental health services and healthcare. The panel’s report says there is an urgent need for effective prevention, interventions and the ability to identify youth at-risk for mental illness and connect them with needed treatment and services.

The report 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.

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