Issue #8: K-12 Education

School districts and policymakers are looking for better, sustainable ways to address students’ mental health in the face of trauma.

The big picture: Awareness is growing about the struggle that school administrators, staff, and teachers face in dealing with students’ mental health as the nation’s opioid crisis and mass shootings in schools and neighborhoods have focused attention on the issue. While trauma among students is not new (experts estimate that nearly half of students have experienced at least one traumatic event in their lives – including witnessing domestic violence or violent death, being victims of abuse, living in abject poverty), there is a growing movement within schools to understand and address it through an approach called “trauma-informed schools.” In these schools, adults are trained to recognize and respond to people who have been affected by traumatic stress, and kids learn coping strategies. Of course, this education and awareness must coincide with meaningful access to school-based mental health services – a challenge for many cash-strapped schools.

In “trauma-informed schools” adults are trained to recognize and respond to people who have been affected by traumatic stress, and kids learn coping strategies.

Federal funding is available to help schools navigate this space. For example, the Every Student Succeeds Act’s Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAE) supports trauma-informed practices. And there are other federal grant programs related to school mental health services and responding to trauma (for example, Project Prevent). In 2018, Congress passed and President Trump signed a bill to help tackle the opioid epidemic; among many provisions, it authorized an annual $50 million in grants for five years to support schoolwide behavioral health services for K-12 students who experience trauma, including screening, referral, and treatment.

On the horizon: More states will likely need to consider legislation to support schools in their efforts to address student mental health. A good example is Massachusetts’ 2014 Safe and Supportive Schools law, which requires schools to develop action plans for creating safe and supportive environments. The law also established a grant program and technical assistance for schools and districts. Foundations are also supporting this work; in 2016, a group of foundations in the Philadelphia area put together a guide on trauma-informed funding (see it here).

In many cases, individual school districts will need to piece together funding from multiple sources to secure training and services for adults and kids alike. For example, when the 21-school, 16,000-student school district in Stamford, CT, overhauled its mental health system a few years ago, it used both state and district funds to train school social workers and psychologists in Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools, an evidence-based intervention to “reduce symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and behavioral problems, and to improve functioning, grades and attendance, peer and parent support, and coping skills.” Within two years, the district was able to “expand evidence-based services for students, implement district-wide trauma and behavioral health training and supports for staff, and integrate community and state resources and services for students.” Leaders are hopeful that their approach can help sustain service provision and training even in the face of budget cuts.

In 2019, we will be watching how both states and local school districts are addressing trauma in schools through federal funding, state policy, and new school-based interventions.