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Good News About Mental Health in Our Schools

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J. M. Myers M.D.* returns as a guest blogger to write this two-part series about mental health in our schools. Here, in part one, he shares his view of the good news.

May is mental health month.There is an intersection of mental health for children with their experience in the educational system.  Now it would be easy enough to explore the issues for the 14% of children who have definable mental health diagnoses and are significantly symptomatic. Their school function is impacted at the cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral levels. However, I thought we might turn to educational changes that have massively impacted the mental health of children in the last 40 years, looking at one dramatically positive evolution, and one decidedly negative change.  However, when addressed together in the same piece, the terrible realities of the negative may so dominate that the positive gets lost. So I decided to use one piece to share the positive and one piece to share the negative.

Children Benefit From 40 Years of Change

In the late 1960's and early 1970's, many developmentally and emotionally disturbed children were provided no education at all. If they were confined to an in state institution, little was offered for their education. A substantial number of children were sent to out of state residential institutions in Pennsylvania, in Massachusetts or in Alabama. Contact with their families was compromised and the engagement of families in treatment was well nigh impossible.  

Nonetheless, the experiences and other realities from that time cause me to be very optimistic about America.  At the same time handicapped children as a group were compromised in receiving an education, bright green shoots were popping up across America, proving what could be done. One of my father's most satisfying experiences as a school superintendent was to observe his very skillful special education teachers engaging non-verbal autistic children in a late 1960's classroom. I observed severely multiply handicapped pre-school children being educated in Head Start classrooms in California in 1972. These accomplishments propelled what was next to come.

On November 30, 1975, President Ford signed P. L. 94-142 which mandated the education of all handicapped children. The law created mandates for districts to evaluate handicapped children and create an educational plan for them, with parental input, that would emulate as closely as possible the educational experience on non disabled students.  

Was this the end of the story?  By no means.  Forty years of slow glacial change has ensued. Why? Well the causes are multiple.  

  • Some has been simple ignorance of what potentials existed in their students.  
  • Some surely flowed from the stigma for the handicapped, especially those handicapped emotionally.  
  • Some came from financial concerns that it would divert scarce resources, although the federal government was committed to augment financial support, which unfortunately never reached the level of its initial commitment.  
  • Some came from states that believed in their omnipotent wisdom that they could pick a maximum number of children in a school district who could be designated as handicapped regardless of whether drug abuse was escalating during pregnancy or whether other environmental factors were intervening e.g. Flint leaded water impact on cognitive development.  

In spite of all these obstructions, progress continued, but the rear guard action to reverse the gains continued.  The most recent effort to forestall progress relied on the idea that creating a written plan would fulfill the mandates of the law regardless of whether the plan had data to support its effectiveness.  These issues were still being litigated in the mid 2010's. You might believe that educators and school officials would fully support educational plans for students with the greatest evidence supporting effectiveness. Not so. The national school superintendents association and the national school boards association actively intervened in court filings to sabotage the intent of the law.

This brings us to March 2017. The case of Enders F. vs. Douglas County School District was taken up by the United States Supreme Court and decided in March by the unanimous decision of the court handed down by Chief Justice John Roberts. It ruled that school districts must give students with disabilities a chance to make appropriately ambitious progress. Window dressing and paper plans would not suffice. Forty years of slow progress had now the final endorsement of the court.

Success 

Of course this is not the end of the battle. However, the end is within sight. A landmark achievement has been won. We still have much ignorance to overcome. However, children who are handicapped are proving every day what exciting potentials may be unlocked if we understand their problem and design interventions to address them. Children are in school close to home. Services are being delivered. What a great celebration to be had in this mental health month.

J.M. Myers, brother of Ann Myers, has spent his career working with children and families in multiple mental health and child developmental facilities in upstate New York. His previous post entitled 'Schools Need More Reliable Research' can be found here.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by wokandapix courtesy of Pixabay

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