Battle shapes up over future of NJ schools mental health programs
TRENTON – Lawmakers and school officials remain sharply at odds with Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration over how to proceed with mental health services in schools, as the state plans to replace a decades-old grant program with an initiative covering all of New Jersey.
Advocates for the current system say it doesn’t make sense to dismantle the school-based youth services program and its proven results with a new school-linked statewide network called the NJ Statewide Student Support Service, or NJ4S.
Bringing state support statewide
But state Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer said the current program funds programs in 86 schools, while 2,400 other schools don’t receive any support from that program, though do provide mental-health services developed locally.
“It's clear that youth mental health is a public health emergency. And a statewide crisis like this demands statewide solutions,” Norbut Beyer said at a hearing of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Public Schools. “Right now, we have an extraordinary opportunity and an unprecedented responsibility to ensure access and equity in support for youth mental wellness.”
The state is planning to have NJ4S in place for the 2023-24 academic year, which starts in less than nine months.
It includes a “hub and spoke” model with 15 hubs that will organize services in their counties or multi-county regions, connecting students to needed services that could be available through schools, libraries and community centers.
Beyer said she knows schools in the current grant system value their programs but that it can’t be taken statewide due to budget and program constraints.
“We also recognize that this is a large systemic change,” Beyer said.
'Very dangerous ... taking it away right now'
Advocates for the school-based youth services program – including some at schools that aren’t funded by the current SBYS grants – said the change wasn’t thought through and can’t replicate what would be eliminated.
“Students are upset and heartbroken about the announcement regarding the defunding of our Teen Center,” said Highland Park Schools Superintendent Kristina Nicosia. That program has been funded by the state for 23 years and currently receives $300,000 a year in state funds.
“I am the voice of the students that were sitting around the room with tears streaming down their face because they said it’s because of the teen center that their lives were saved,” Nicosia said.
Brett Sabo, whose son is a junior at Red Bank Regional High School, said he and other students benefit greatly from The Source, its school-based youth services program.
“It would leave a very dangerous hole in that fabric, taking it away right now,” Sabo said. “The kids have lost so much of their high school experience already to the pandemic, and giving them the consistency in this uncertain time I think is really important and sorely needed.”
Beyer said there are equity concerns with the current approach – even within districts such as Camden and Newark which have state-funded, school-based programs at a limited number of their buildings.
But Julie Larrea Borst, executive director of Save Our Schools NJ, said that’s not the equity implication at stake.
“It’s not an equity issue that other school districts don’t have this,” Borst said. “It’s an equity issue because you are pulling away services – direct services, embedded services, services that have been there for decades, literally – from Black and Latino and economically disadvantaged students. Why would you do that? Like, why would you even think that that’s a good idea?”
'A no-go for the state of New Jersey'
The timing of the hearing coincided with Murphy appearing in Utah for the launch of the National Governors Association’s Strengthening Youth Mental Health initiative, which as the NGA’s chairman he selected as the group’s focus for year ahead.
Back home, lawmakers who took part in the online hearing were unanimously concerned about the change planned for New Jersey schools.
Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, said the testimony gave her chills and that the program's supporters should “be assured that this is not an issue that we’re going to let go of.”
“We need to keep what we have and build on that, rather than have one new program wipe out programs that are currently working,” Jasey said.
“We want to send a message back to the commissioner and back to Gov. Murphy’s office that this is a no-go for the state of New Jersey. No, no, no,” said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson, D-Mercer.
“Do not piss off the parents,” said Assemblywoman Victoria Flynn, R-Monmouth. “And right now, you pissed off a lot of parents.”