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Ed. Note: This is an op-ed by James Earle, Superintendent of Trenton Public Schools; Thomas Trongone, Superintendent of Millville Public Schools, and David M. Aderhold, Superintendent of West Windsor-Plainsboro Public Schools. Today Senate Education Chair Sen. Vin Gopal confirmed that Gov. Phil Murphy will announce plans to maintain funding for the long-running programs for one year while his administration builds out his regionalized “hub” model called the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services network. The Record’s Mary Ann Koruth tweeted earlier today that the Governor’s announcement amounts to a “bandaid fix” and “educators want the beloved & critical program to stay permanent.” This was originally published at NJ Spotlight.
As educators and advocates for student mental health services, we continue to be deeply concerned at the Murphy administration’s proposal that would dismantle the current successful School-Based Youth Services Program at the end of the 2022-2023 school year and replace it with the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Service Network, or NJ4S, which will consist of a statewide system of 15 student mental health hubs.
The state Department of Children and Families first attempted to defund SBYSP two years ago. Now, it is leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to justify the urgency for a redesign. As the administration appears to be moving forward with the plans despite our protests, we believe there are flaws and errors in its claims that must be addressed before it is too late.
First, NJ4S’s proponents claim their plans are simply a modernization or expansion of the current SBYSP model. That is not true. It is an elimination of the current program model, as well as an elimination of all 91 SBYSPs that currently exist throughout the state. In fact, there are several misleading premises in the “concept paper” that DCF uses to support its arguments for NJ4S.
There is an implied assumption that the SBYSP mental health model, which supports 2% of New Jersey’s 1.4 million children, is the only service that is provided by school districts, while the other 98% receive no mental health services. This is blatantly untrue and not representative of other mental health services that are provided by many districts.
The DCF’s numbers also do not take into account the positive youth development component of SBYSP.
What DCF is claiming
The NJ4S report also claims that “inconsistency” in services is inherent in the SBYSP model. That “inconsistency” is actually part of the original design, allowing local education agencies to work with local systems of care to develop models that met the needs of specific communities.
The report states that there is a lack of evidence-based approaches and inconsistent operating model. In our view, any program that has operated for 35 years must have data to validate the approaches used. The premise of the NJ4S report is grounded in the assumption that if a program doesn’t “check the box” on a federal grant application as an “evidence-based approach” then the program cannot be used with federal funding.
The DCF stated that it conducted a “comprehensive stakeholder engagement process,” but that assertion does not comport with the data presented in its report. For example, according to the DCF’s slide presentation, the division “received thirty-two responses from youth between January and March 2022.” But these responses consisted of the following: one focus group with four participants; one focus group with three participants; five individual discussions; and 20 survey responses. This sampling is so small as to be meaningless.
Not one superintendent from the 62 school districts that host SBYSP was consulted on the removal of services.
A meeting between SBYSP advocates and members of Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff resulted in slight alterations to the DCF’s justifications for the NJ4S plan, but no substantive change. Despite the strong and continued objections raised by educators and mental health professionals, DCF continues to plow forward, apparently oblivious to both evidence and outcry. The voices and needs of the students in school communities with SBYSP have been ignored.
This will lead to a vacuum of services
For 62 school districts representing 91 schools, the elimination of SBYSP will lead to a vacuum of services for the students and communities that have relied upon these 35-year-old structures. Districts will be unable to replicate the loss of services with the current 2% budget cap, making the future uncertain for some of the state’s most vulnerable students.
SBYSP is in host schools and coordinates with existing resources in each community. All students attending those schools can participate in the programs, and services are provided before, during and after school. Available services include mental health counseling; employment counseling; substance abuse education/prevention; preventive health awareness, including pregnancy prevention; primary medical linkages; learning support; healthy youth development; recreation, and information/referrals.
Traveling to regional hubs will be impossible for the many students and families with limited access to transportation. Those who work after school hours may face a Catch-22 situation that will force them to choose between earning much-needed income for their families and accessing vital mental health services.
NJ4S pulls services away from where youth are — in schools — thereby creating the very barriers to access that the original SBYSP model was designed to eliminate. In-school services promote equity and access; hubs create greater distance.
Why the urgency?
So why the sense of urgency? A minimum of 25,000 to 35,000 students at 91 school sites are at risk of losing an array of easily accessible, on-site counseling programs, like the following:
- Millville High School’s Link program, embedded for more than 17 years, is a one-stop shop that provides students with a multitude of accessible, on-site support systems. These include mental health, recreational/social activities, employment services and urgent medical care on campus. Link is both a continuing support system and a lifeline. When students experience crisis, Link triages the continuum of their needs, connecting them with critical services and resources in collaboration with parents and school staff.
- The SBYSP in the Trenton Public Schools has helped the district realize its commitment to return several cohorts of students with histories of behavioral and discipline issues from out-of-district placements. Often, SBYSP is the first point of contact for these returning students, as well as their classmates. Students look to the relationships formed through participation in these programs for support throughout their school careers.
- For the past 34 years, the Long Branch SBYSP has been offering a safe and supportive environment to address the academic and social/emotional needs of students and families. Services include individual counseling, group counseling, class presentations, prevention programs, family engagement, community outreach, youth development and employment preparation.
- At Gloucester County Institute of Technology, SBYSP provides confidential counseling and other supportive services for students. The SBYSP staff is trained to work with a variety of issues such as stress, depression, drug and alcohol use, sexual orientation, family problems and much more.
Addition, not replacement
We believe that there is a need for therapeutic mental health services available within school districts to meet the need of our students and families and provide direct access to clinical support. Defunding SBYSP without consulting the very school districts and providers that have successfully implemented services in districts since 1987 is unfathomable.
The proposed defunding/redesign is an immediate issue that must be addressed through the budgetary process by February 2023, as news of a unilateral nonrenewal of SBYSP will cause SBYSP staff to look for new employment.
We understand the tremendous need across our country, state and communities for social, emotional and mental health services, and we are not suggesting that other students don’t need or deserve the supports and services provided by SBYSP. In fact, we believe that the DCF should do a thorough analysis to get an accurate picture of the overall availability of mental health services to students throughout the state. As yet, the DCF has provided no defined explanation of how the hubs and spokes will operate. If the NJ4S model is to go forward, the implementation process should take three years, to allow for proper set-up and staffing of the hubs. And finally, we strongly recommend that NJ4S be implemented in addition to, not in place of, existing school-based youth services programs.
Anything less will be a disservice to New Jersey’s children.