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Dems weaken school mental health care bill

Columbia Basin Herald - 2/28/2018

Feb. 28--Print Article

Amidst calls to strengthen school safety in an era of mass shootings, a bill that sought to bring up-to-date lagging school district response plans for students suffering emotional or behavioral health crises was stripped of its core substance earlier this month.

The bill, SB 6141, originally would have put mental health coordinators into each of the state's nine education service districts to help bring districts into compliance with a five-year-old state law that requires response plans and coordination with community mental health organizations. This law is one of the only statewide directives mandating how a district responds to a student whose emotional or behavioral health has deteriorated to the point that they may be a danger to themselves or others.

The mental health coordinators would have assisted in program implementation and reported the progress made by districts to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

This has deemed necessary due to a low rate of compliance among school districts. Among eight school districts located in Eastern or Central Washington that responded to the Columbia Basin Herald, none have met the requirements of state law, and some openly admitted to not being aware the requirements existed in the first place.

After the original measure was replaced without debate by a substitute bill sponsored by Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, all that remained was a smaller section of the bill that would create an hour long course on student suicide prevention made available to teachers and administrators online.

Chris West, Rolfes' press liaison, said that due to budget concerns the proposal was stripped down, prioritizing other policies. The original bill would have cost approximately $1.2 million per year, a fraction of a percent of the $44 billion 2017-2019 budget; the substitute bill's suicide prevention training course has an estimated cost of around $75,000 per year.

The legislation in its original form was requested by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. In an interview with the Columbia Basin Herald, State Superintendent Chris Reykdal said that mental health coordinators are a necessary part of supporting students and preventing school shootings.

"Should we spend all of our time trying to stop a school shooter, or should we put some money and time into preventing a school shooter?" Reykdal said. "This question of mental health is so important, because it's more about diagnostics, it's about supporting a student through it and making sure there is a continuity of care across school districts."

After being voted through the Senate, the bill passed through policy and fiscal committees in the House without amendment. West said that this indicated the two legislative bodies agreed that the bill was not a priority in the budget. The measure is currently waiting to be placed on the floor calendar of the House, where it will receive its final vote if there are no amendments.

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