ACLU pushes for more mental health workers in schools, less SROs

RHODE ISLAND (WLNE) – Governor Gina Raimondo is looking to increase the number of mental health workers in schools as part of her budget proposal for fiscal year 2021.

If her proposal passes in the General Assembly, public school districts that hire additional mental health professionals will be eligible for up to a 50% reimbursement from the state.

The reimbursement would cover the cost of salaries and benefits for the new employees.

“It’s a wise investment,” said Laurie-Marie Piscotta, the Executive Director of Mental Health Assoc. of R.I.

She says the state will see a positive return on it’s investment in mental health workers.

“The schools that have more mental health professionals have increased attendance rates, increased academic achievement and career preparedness, improved school climate, and lower rates of suspensions,” said Piscotta.

She also says due to the coronavirus pandemic, mental health workers are needed now more than ever for today’s youth.

“Across the board we’re seeing increased rates of depression and anxiety,” said Piscotta.

According to Mental Health Assoc. of R.I., about one in five young people ages 6-17 have a mental health condition. Additionally, about half of all cases of mental illness begin at age 14. Furthermore, older teens who struggle with depression are twice as likely to drop out of school.

The state has offered the same reimbursement deal proposed in the FY 2021 budget to school resource officers (SRO) since 2018.

The ACLU of Rhode Island wants to see all of the money used for SROs shifted to cover more mental health professionals.

“[Mental health workers] are just more equipped to handle and talk to students,” said Hannah Stern, the Policy Associate at the ACLU of R.I.

In the past few months, the ACLU has filed two lawsuits against school districts in Rhode Island because of incidents involving SROs.

One lawsuit was filed after a 13-year-old student was arrested by an SRO at a school in Pawtucket. The other suit was filed on behalf of a special education student in Narragansett who was slammed to the ground and then arrested by an SRO for making an inappropriate gesture.

“A student should never go to school with the fear that they’re going to be assaulted by an SRO,” said Stern.

The governor’s budget proposal is still being considered in the General Assembly. The Senate Finance Committee will meet Tuesday night to continue discussions on the budget.


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