I have written this post with the help and input of Jessica Taube and Divya Dodhia, who are both parents, mental health professionals, and school advocates. The three of us are members of Jersey City Together's Education Team. We came together through our advocacy work and put this page together as a resource for parents, caregivers, advocates, and community; our hope is to help spread awareness about the lack of mental health supports in Jersey City Public Schools and call community to action. We also wanted to share a letter we signed and sent as a part of a broader team with Jersey City Together -- you can find that here.
The ask: Please send an email or call into the BOE meeting to address Superintendent Walker and the Board of Education and compel them to act urgently to provide our youth with more robust mental health services in our schools. Help get licensed mental health therapists and other mental health supports into our schools ASAP.
Below you will find a template email that you can add to or edit as you see fit and send to Superintendent Walker, his senior staff, and the board of education trustees. Below the template email is background about this issue, and about the broader mental health crisis facing our youth.
This is an urgent emergency and we need the district to treat it as such.
The advocacy email template is below and was created by Jessica, Divya, and me. Please feel free to send directly from this site OR you can copy the content below and send directly from your email inbox. Also, if you use the form letter feature below you can blind copy (BCC) yourself to preserve a copy of the letter you send. If you have questions feel free to email me at Brigid.DSouza@gmail.com.
On Thursday, December 16th, the Board of Education held its final regular meeting of the 2021 calendar year and while many speakers had signed up to speak about mental health, and many also sent emails, the Board of Education did not address this issue in depth.
The next BOE meeting will be a reorganization meeting held on Jan 5, 2022 (see details about that here). At that meeting, three new BOE trustees will be sworn in and a new president will be elected by the existing BOE trustees. Mr. Walker will no longer be superintendent, as he is retiring effective Dec 31, 2021.
- Mussab Ali - term ends in 2021
- Joan Terrell-Paige - term ends in 2021
- Marilyn Roman- term ends in 2021
- Lekendrick Shaw
- Alexander Hamilton
- Gerald Lyons
- Lorenzo Richardson
- Gina Verdibello
- Noemi Velazquez
The three new BOE trustees who will be replacing trustees Ali, Terrell-Paige, and Roman are:
- Natalia Ioffe
- Younass Barkouch
- Paula Jones-Watson
Public comment was allowed at least year's reorganization meeting, which indicates it may be allowed at this year's meeting too.
To get on the speakers' list, you can call 201.915.6074 (you'll need to leave a message) or email the BOE at firstname.lastname@example.org.
After nearly 18 months in a mostly online format, Jersey City Public Schools returned to a full-in person learning. The district is working with its first fully budget in more than a decade and also has tens of millions of federal aid dollars to reopen and support the students. So in August, the district hired an outside vendor at a cost of $2.9 million to provide mental health professionals who could be embedded within our schools; however, in November that contract was cancelled without explanation or a backup plan.
The need for mental health services is clear, and it's on the record.
We can see laid out in the public record. The Board of Education explicitly stated this need for mental health services on August 26th, as part of its RFP (request for proposal) report for counseling services:
“The COVID epidemic has caused many social/emotional issues for our students, staff, and parents. We the District are in need of mental health professionals to come into our schools daily to work with restoring the mental and emotional well-being of all.” –RPF Contract Award Report, Aug 26, 2021
The funding is available, and it's federal American Rescue Plan (ARP) provided:
For years the district was hamstrung by continued budget cuts due to pressure from City Hall and state aid cuts. But in June 2021 the BOE broke through the political logjam and passed its first fully funded budget in more than a decade, with board trustees citing the need to support our students. What's more, the federal government provided tens of millions in pandemic aid and acknowledged that mental health services were critical for kids, allowing aid to be used for mental health services in local schools. The $2.9 million contract - with private vendor Reimagined Mind - was included in the district’s federal ARP aid / spending report:
But then the contract with Reimagined Mind was terminated at the November 2021 board meeting. No public explanation was given. The end result - what really matters here for our kids - is that our schools are now back to square one with respect to a lack of sufficient mental health services, and we are nearly halfway through the school year. Our kids need these services but we don't have enough staff. After years of budget cuts, the existing mental health professionals in JCPS continue to be spread too thin.
Some additional context.
The district defined the need for mental health professionals embedded in our schools in addition to the traditional school counselors. I'm not a mental health expert, but in talking to those who are experts, it seems extremely important to underscore the nuance related to "counselors."
Specifically, what is needed here are counselors of various types:
According to ASCA, counseling services fall into three critical domains: career development, academic counseling and social-emotional learning, the third of which has been in higher-than-usual demand in recent years. In many schools, especially those that serve younger students, one person is able to cover all three domains, typically approaching the third by offering classroom guidance that covers bullying, how to ask for help and how to talk about your feelings. That person can also work more closely with specific students who have been identified as needing short-term intervention, often in response to trauma, such as the death of a family member or parents’ divorce..." - Ed Surge, September 2019
So...we need especially need, at this time, the third type of counselor in our schools, ideally in the form of licensed mental health therapists (aka clinicians) as soon as possible. And while many current articles point out the shortage of mental health professionals across the country, NJ has - statistically, at least, as of June 2021 - among the "lowest proportion of their population living in areas with mental health shortages." We need to press hard locally for services.
Using existing ratios to help define the status quo paradigm vs. what's needed going forward.
I am an accountant so my bias is numbers and quantifying the paradigm.
So, if we look at a typical guidance counselor who covers the three domains noted above (career development, academic counseling, and social-emotional learning), the best practice ratio according to the ASCA (American School Counselor Association) is 250:1 (250 students to one counselor).
In NJ, the ratio in the 2019-20 school year was 348:1.
If we applied the best practice ratio to JCPS, a district with approximately 30,000 students, that means we may need about 30,000 / 250 = about 120 guidance counselors. I do not know how many we actually have on staff, but it would be interesting to find out. [A side note: I think we should know this number; as it stands, we don't know it because the district does not provide that level of transparency, at least not easily.]
However, if we are talking about licensed mental health therapists, the ratios are much lower, in the range of 50:1 or 30:1. It is important to note that this type of service is different from academic counseling; these professionals are tasked with meeting with students, building rapport and a relationship, and counseling them on a consistent basis through complex terrains of trauma, grief, and more. And, not all 30,000 students would necessarily need these types of services (the way, for example, all high schoolers should be given career counseling). Instead, the idea is a ground-up approach where need is assessed and students are referred to counseling if it's warranted.
So let's look at a school like Dickinson High School, where for two days now there have been threats of violence that have made the local news, and many parents are taking note. That school's 2020-21 enrollment was 1,878 in 2020-21; how many counselors, or what type of programming, is needed to support that school's students on a daily basis? If we assumed 10% of the population -- or 187 -- then that means they would need at last six licensed mental health therapists. Of course, other solutions may exist if the district thinks outside the box, such as restorative justice.
This is a community conversation that we need to have, and we need mental health experts to help drive it.
In December 2021 the U.S. Surgeon General issued an advisory on the youth mental health crisis, highlighting how this crisis has been exacerbated by COVID19. Among the report's highlights:
- "Before the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health challenges were the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people, with up to 1 in 5 children ages 3 to 17 in the U.S. having a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder.
- From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased by 40%, to more than 1 in 3 students.
- Suicidal behaviors among high school students also increased during the decade preceding COVID, with 19% seriously considering attempting suicide, a 36% increase from 2009 to 2019, and about 16% having made a suicide plan in the prior year, a 44% increase from 2009 to 2019.
- Between 2007 and 2018, suicide rates among youth ages 10-24 in the U.S. increased by 57%, and early estimates show more than 6,600 suicide deaths among this age group in 2020.
The report explained how the COVID19 has only worsened the landscape for our youth. Additional information from "Protecting Youth Mental Health - The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory" is provided below:
Jersey City Public Schools serves approximately 30,000 students. The district did not open into a hybrid model until spring 2021, upon which a majority of families opted to stay at home.
This means a majority of our student body was isolated in online learning from March 2020 to September 2021.
Jersey City Public Schools is not only one of NJ's biggest districts; it's also one of NJ's most diverse. The 2020-21 enrollment data breaks down our student data:
60% qualify for free or reduced lunch
13% are English language learners
38% are Hispanic
25% are Black
19% are Asian
15% are White
What we need from schools to address this crisis
The Surgeon General's report called on school districts to act urgently to address the needs of youth. The recommendations include steps that require a robust, well-trained, licensed staff of mental health experts:
- "Create positive, safe, and affirming school environments.
- Expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.
- Learn how to recognize signs of changes in mental and physical health among students, including trauma and behavior changes. Take appropriate action when needed.
- Provide a continuum of supports to meet student mental health needs, including evidence-based prevention practices and trauma-informed mental health care.
- Expand the school-based mental health workforce.
- Support the mental health of all school personnel.
- Promote enrolling and retaining eligible children in Medicaid, CHIP, or a Marketplace plan, so that children have health coverage that includes behavioral health services.
- Protect and prioritize students with higher needs and those at higher risk of mental health challenges."
- Surgeon General Youth Mental Health Advisory, pages 19-20