New Jersey

N.J. retreats from controversial plan to eliminate school-based mental health programs

After backlash from educators and mental health advocates, New Jersey has backed out — for now — of a controversial plan to scrap school-based youth services programs that counsel thousands of students in 63 districts, including Camden.

However, the state Department of Children and Families said on Wednesday that it would go ahead with the plan to offer additional counseling and other services through newly created regional centers. It said school-based programs at 86 schools would be maintained for at least another year through 2024.

School officials and lawmakers, who urged the state to reconsider the proposal known as the NJ Statewide Student Support Services, or NJ4S network, called the decision a partial victory. Many had feared the school-based programs would be phased out by the end of the 2022-23 school year.

» READ MORE: Plan to replace school-based mental health programs in NJ with regional centers is under attack from counties

“This is a step in the right direction,” Millville School Superintendent Tony Trognone said Thursday. “But the jury is still out. The details are coming out very slowly.”

In the announcement, the state said the decision came after weeks of comments from the public and stakeholders. It said that keeping existing school-based programs would minimize disruption to students already receiving services.

In addition to Eastide High and Camden High in Millville and Camden, other South Jersey schools that currently have school-based youth services include Willingboro High School, Pemberton Township High School, Clayton Middle School, Gloucester County Institute of Technology in Deptford , Bridgeton High School and Penns Grove High School.

The state said it would issue a call for proposals, or RFPs, in the coming weeks for the new program, which would take a more regional approach to mental health services. The state plans to create nodes on the NJ4S network near the state’s 15 judicial districts by June 30, 2023. There would be a ‘hub and spoke’ model staffed by prevention specialists and mental health counselors.

“By firmly believing the importance of addressing the mental health needs of our youth, I understand the importance of providing young people with the support they need during these challenging times,” said Governor Phil Murphy in a statement.

» READ MORE: Young people are going through a mental health crisis and New Jersey needs a plan to help

At a time when youth mental health was being declared a crisis, the state said the regional approach would allow it to reach all of New Jersey’s 1.4 million public school students. Services would be provided to students in schools and trusted institutions such as libraries and community centers.

The current school-based youth service program, started in 1988, serves 25,000 to 30,000 students annually and costs about $32 million, according to state figures. But there are about 2,400 New Jersey schools that don’t have school-based youth services in their buildings, and the state said it can’t afford to roll them out.

Trognone and others say that conveniently located programs, like LINK at Millville High School, have created a safe environment for students to seek help from counselors they are comfortable with. His district has had a program for 17 years.

In addition to mental health services, the programs provide health and wellness services for students and their families, drug-related help, job-search initiatives, and recreational activities. School officials say students can get real-time help with an intervention that would likely allow them to stay in school.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have praised the school-based programs and resisted changing them. School psychologists have said the programs are the most effective and timely way to reach students, particularly those in underserved communities.

In a joint statement, the Legislative Black Caucus and Latino Caucus praised Murphy’s decision to extend the programs. It was unclear what would happen after 2024. Many counties have said they cannot afford to fund them without government help.

“It was alarming to learn of the potential dismantling of life-saving programs… [that] provide safe spaces for students; Environments where they feel comfortable and have built trusting relationships,” the caucuses said.

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