Mental Health Groups Worry School Safety Grants May Have Unintended Consequences

Aug 22, 2018

In the aftermath of mass shootings across the country, Wisconsin schools are getting $100 million in state grants to keep students safe. The funding comes from the State Department of Justice’s new Office of School Safety.

DOJ recently announced that about half of the funding will go toward mental health-related efforts.

But six Wisconsin mental health organizations have concerns, outlining them in a letter signed on Monday. They say stipulations included in the funding could foster suspicion toward teens with mental illness. The criticism comes down to two requirements attached to the $45 million.

One of them mandates schools to create ‘safety intervention teams’ to evaluate risks posed by students. The teams would also promote and participate in the use of a confidential tip line to alert DOJ about potential student threats.

“This is not conducive to good mental health,” says Joanne Juhnke, policy director at Wisconsin Family Ties, one of six mental health organizations that signed the letter.

She thinks the tip line requirement could cause unfair profiling of students with mental health challenges.

“You know, that child who expressed momentary angry feelings in a scary drawing is all of a sudden tagged as the next school shooter, when that is not what was going on at all,” Juhnke says. “Or the student with autism who likes to wear a heavy trench coat and doesn’t make friends easily, suddenly we’ve got the stigma attached to that.”

The tip line isn’t Juhnke’s only concern. She and other mental health advocates have questions about a required teacher training.

Schools that receive DOJ grants would need to send 10 percent of full-time teachers and counselors to training conducted by an organization that represents school resource officers, or police officers stationed in schools.

Juhnke is worried about school staff being taught how to deal with mental illness from a ‘police perspective.’

"The idea of this training, if you really get to the core of it, is to teach how to better recognize a potential mental health issue and to know how to better de-escalate it," Mo Canady says.

But Mo Canady, the head of the National Association of School Resource Officers, disagrees. His group conducts the training. He says it is appropriate for educators.

“The idea of this training, if you really get to the core of it, is to teach how to better recognize a potential mental health issue and to know how to better de-escalate it,” Canady says.

Kristen Devitt, DOJ Office of School Safety director, echoes Canady’s defense. She responded to the six mental health organizations in a letter Tuesday evening. She says the required training teaches participants how to recognize students in crisis and help them cope long-term.

Devitt backs up the grant requirements, including the tip line, by pointing to similar successful programs in other states. She writes that DOJ “is aware of the stigma and blame that students with mental health challenges may face, and that those students should not automatically be funneled into the criminal justice system.”

The Office of School Safety was formed in March, following the shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 students were killed. Gov. Scott Walker and Wisconsin lawmakers created the agency under the Department of Justice and allotted $100 million for school safety grants.

The move was questioned by the state’s existing education arm, the Department of Public Instruction. A spokesman from DPI calls the new office ‘duplicative.’

The mental health-focused funding is the second round of DOJ school safety grants. About $50 million was already approved for hundreds of schools, to cover physical safety upgrades and a host of other improvements. The Milwaukee Public School District got $3 million.

MPS also plans to apply for mental health-centered funds. That means if the grant is approved, MPS would have to follow the requirements that are now being questioned by mental health advocates.

DOJ expects to finalize grant decisions in October.

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