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Nearly $6M headed to Iowa schools to address mental health, support

Gazette - 10/4/2022

Oct. 4—Iowa will receive about $6 million in federal grant dollars to help schools address student well-being.

The U.S. Department of Education last week announced awards to states and territories totaling nearly $1 billion through the bipartisan gun violence bill signed by President Joe Biden in June in the aftermath of the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting.

The money is intended to foster safe, inclusive and supportive learning environments, including funding to address mental and emotional health concerns for students, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Schools might add counselors, social workers and psychologists; partner with community organizations to offer mental health support for students; training staff on how to handle trauma; or create calming spaces for staff and students, officials say.

States are being directed to use the money in districts with high rates of poverty, chronic absenteeism, a high number of referrals to the juvenile justice system, high incidents of bullying or harassment or districts where students recently experienced a natural disaster or traumatic event. Money could also be used for "limited infrastructure improvements," such as repairing or replacing building locks and securing building entrances.

School districts would competitively apply for funding from state education agencies, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona. A representative from the Iowa Department of Education was unavailable for comment Monday.

Research has shown that students who feel a sense of belonging in school are more likely to perform better academically and less likely to be absent, engage in risky behavior, experience emotional distress and misbehave, Cardona wrote to education officials.

The U.S. Department of Education is encouraging states to prioritize funding to school districts that:

— Use evidence-based strategies to create positive, inclusive and supportive school environments

— Increase access to interventions and strategies that support students' physical, emotional, mental an social well-being

— Engage students, families, educators, staff and community organizations in the selection and implementation of strategies and interventions

— Designs polices and practices that advance equity, protect student rights and are responsive to underserved students

Cardona notes in his letter that research demonstrates students of color are disciplined more harshly and frequently — disproportionately so — than their white peers, "especially for minor and more subjective offenses." And are more likely to be met with discipline rather the appropriate mental health assessment, treatment and supports they require. Such disparities in discipline policies have also been reported by and among students with disabilities, English-language learners and LGBTQ students.

Last month, a federal judge denied a request from a group of parents to bar the Linn-Mar school district from enforcing a series of transgender student support policies for grades 7 through 12.

U.S. District Court Judge C.J. Williams concluded that granting an injunction against the policies would leave transgender students subject to bullying and harassment. He wrote that the policies ensure Linn-Mar schools "are productive, safe places to educate children and to ensure no child is subject to harassment, bullying or made to feel lesser for any reason by students, staff and others while at school."

The seven anonymous parents who filed the lawsuit fear the policy allows school staff to create a gender support plan without parental consent. The parents assert their fundamental right to make decisions about the care, custody and control of their children, according to court documents.

John Speer, chief administrator of the Grant Wood Area Education Agency, said the announced funding will enable school districts to provide more resources in a more timely manner.

"That's a win for students," said Speer, who noted mental health and student behavior consistently remains among the top most-pressing needs among school districts.

"The pandemic, I think, kind of has exacerbated or made that even a little more noticeable than it was before," he said. "There just are not enough resources available, even in a resource-rich area like the Corridor is and our surrounding counties. There just aren't enough licensed mental health counselors to meet the needs of a growing student population that needs supports more than ever."

As a result, students often have to wait for extended periods before they can see counselor or be evaluated for mental health services. Speer said Grant Wood AEA has tried to connect schools and its partners "as best possible" to local resources through partnerships with Tanager Place, Covenant Family Solution and Foundation 2 Crisis Services.

"We do have some districts that have licensed mental health counselors right in the school, who both help staff with professional learning around the signs of students who are in distress, but also can provide actual mental health counseling on site," Speer said.

The Grant Wood AEA supports more than 72,000 students in public and approved non-public schools in Benton, Cedar, Iowa, Johnson, Jones, Linn and Washington counties.

Speer added the agency has also worked with Foundation 2 to get every school building in its seven-county coverage area access to mobile crisis counseling, where they can call a number and have a mental health counselor dispatched to help a student in distress.

"It's a growing crisis, both for students and adults, but anything that can be done to help that situation will be greatly appreciated," he said.

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