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Opinion | Questions Michigan parents must ask about student mental health

Thanks to our Michigan Legislature, districts will receive a per-pupil allocation (estimated at $220 per student) this school year for student safety and mental health support. This is an important moment in time for the well-being of our children. It behooves parents to ask some important questions to ensure wise spending of funds that will provide support and continuity for students and staff.

Barbara Flis headshot
Barbara Flis is founder of Parent Action for Healthy Kids and is a member of the Michigan Department of Education’s 31N Advisory Committee.

The 31aa legislation requires districts to spend at least 50 percent of this funding on mental-health-related expenses. Additionally, the rules of the funding provide specific categories on which districts are allowed to spend the funds. Before a district decides on how to allocate funds it is important to ask your district the following:

What is the student need? The percentage of funding that goes for student safety and mental health should be determined by what the students need to feel safe, supported and to thrive and learn. For example, does the district participate in the Michigan Profile for Healthy Youth (MiPHY) survey? This survey, unique to Michigan, is an online student health survey offered at no charge by the Michigan Department of Education and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.  

The MiPHY provides student results on health risk behaviors including substance use, violence, physical activity, nutrition, sexual behavior and emotional health in grades 7, 9, and 11. The survey also measures risk and protective factors most predictive of alcohol, tobacco and other drug use and violence.

What is the current ratio of students to counselors, social workers, school nurses and psychologists? There are recommended ratios for each of these specialties (i.e., school nurse 1:750, counselor and social worker 1:250, psychologist 1:500). How does your district rank according to the recommendations?  

There are shortages in some of these professions, so filling these positions can be challenging, but necessary. Research data supports the Whole Child Framework where students are supported by qualified, caring adults.

Where are the gaps? Michigan school districts have local control and this legislation has given them many choices for use of the funds. They must use at least 50 percent on mental health, but can use it all if the need is there. It is important to look at what has already been put into place and then look at where there are gaps.  

Because of the horrific school shootings, safety measures in many schools have already been established so what more do they need to do to ensure student and staff physical safety? Will adding more safety measures be at the expense of student mental health supports? Will more caring adults in the building reduce the risk of violence and threats? There are important decisions to be made. Doing what is in the best interest of students often means more effort on the part of adults.

Finally, parents belong at the table for these critical decisions. Not only do they worry about the safety of their children but there is a silent crisis as they see their child suffering from anxiety and other disorders and then end up on a waitlist for their child to be seen. Imagine a school that has all the human and fiscal resources necessary to identify the need early and get proper and quick treatment.  I applaud the Michigan Legislature for this step in the right direction. I am proud to serve on Michigan’s 31N Advisory Board to improve the health and well-being of Michigan’s children.  

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