Montgomery County school board members are asking the county government for $250,000 to enhance mental health services for students.
The requested addition to this year’s budget would let MCPS contract with outside agencies to refer students who cannot afford mental health care to counselors at no cost to their family.
MCPS estimates the service would cost $750 to $1,100 per student, meaning it could provide assistance to about 270 students, according to school board documents.
The request for additional funding comes less than a month after three MCPS students died by suicide in a two-week stretch.
At the time, Montgomery County Council and school board members said more needed to be done to support students’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
School board documents again emphasize the impact of students “being isolated in their homes,” but do not refer to the three suicide deaths.
“The need for mental health services likely is to increase and the effects of the resulting trauma will be felt for years,” Superintendent Jack Smith wrote in a memo to school board members. “MCPS acknowledges the need for greater access to mental health services for students and families who may not have the independent means to acquire such supports.”
The funding, if approved, would be used as part of a pilot program targeting schools across the county where students “are in most need of additional services that may not be readily accessible to their families,” according to Smith’s message.
The contracted outside agencies would be assigned to a school and be deployed after school-based counselors had already attempted to provide services and determined that students need more help than they can provide.
Smith’s memo did not list the schools that would be included.
“I think that funding for mental health is more critical now than it’s ever been,” school board member Rebecca Smondrowski said in an interview on Thursday. “We know cases of depression, domestic violence, food insecurity and financial instability have risen greatly during this time, and we need to be doing absolutely everything we can to ensure we have what we need to support our students, staff and families.”
The County Council’s Education and Culture Committee is expected to review the funding request on July 23.
During Monday’s school board meeting, Smith said the pilot program was developed after council members recently requested that the school district “build out additional work” to provide mental health services to students.
In MCPS, each school-based psychologist serves approximately 1,800 students, and elementary counselors have an average caseload of 600 students, according to MCPS data.
In an interview last month, Ruschelle Reuben, MCPS’ associate superintendent in the Office of Student and Family Support and Engagement, said the school district has been “very thoughtful and intentional” in ensuring mental health services are available to students during the pandemic.
The district created secure Zoom channels, so counselors and psychologists could have confidential meetings with students and sent messages to students explaining how they can alert authorities if they feel they are in an unsafe situation, Reuben said.
Students had virtual “community circles” to discuss their emotions with each other. School staff members make phone calls to students and families they know need assistance. The school district set up a form to request services or help finding resources.
MCPS also launched a video series called Waymaking, led by Director of School Psychology Christina Conolly.
The videos are on YouTube and on the school district’s website. They tackle topics like stress, feelings of isolation and suicidal ideation.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org