Testimony to the Assembly Standing Committee on Education

Presented by Jasmine Gripper, Legislative Director, October 23, 2018

Good day. My name is Jasmine Gripper. I am the legislative director at the Alliance for Quality Education. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify.

We appreciate Chairwoman Nolan and the entire New York State Assembly fighting for the 2018-19 enacted state budget to appropriate $2 million for the Supportive Schools Grant Program to help school districts improve school climate, school safety and implement the Dignity for All Students Act; $250,000 for mental health programs and services; and $200 million in community schools funding that can be used for health and mental health services. Research shows that students do better when they are healthy, fed, feel safe and are stress free. Investing in providing these services for our students will ensure that we are setting them up for success in school but also in their adult lives.

We need to continue to equip schools to meet the social, emotional, and mental health needs of students. Schools need to be able to hire more guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists, restorative justice coordinators, and school staff trained in trauma informed care. We need more staff able to identify the root causes of adverse childhood experiences and trauma, and to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and school-to-deportation pipeline. We urge the New York State legislature to approach safe, supportive, and inclusive schools with a 21st Century model that prioritizes the social, emotional, and mental health needs of our most vulnerable students. And for that, we need to invest more resources.

There is great need in our schools across the state. In the 2015-16 school year, New York City had 5 support workers for every 1,000 students, according to federal data — fewer than other big cities, like Los Angeles or Washington, D.C. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students in average need schools. But for high poverty schools with “intensive” needs, the recommended ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students. Districts across the state like New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers are serving populations with intensive need, but are far from reaching the recommended ratios. Yonkers School District has 1 guidance counselor per 700 students. Last year, the New York City reported there were 2,880 guidance counselors serving the city’s 1 million students, or one counselor for every 348 students. That ratio has come down by about 7.5 percent, or 28 students, over the last four years — but we still have a long way to go.

More recently, especially after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, many of our already high needs districts saw an increase of students from Puerto Rico.These students experienced the severe trauma of the hurricane, but also the trauma of moving to a significantly different environment. Rochester, for instance, saw an increase of almost 600 students. In order for these students to be successful in school, they need to have the supports they need both at school but also at home, something that makes lending supports to their families imperative. The programs included in the enacted budget for 2018-19 are a good start, though it is unclear whether that funding has been allocated to districts yet.

Another successful strategy that includes the health and mental health supports necessary for students to succeed, is the community schools strategy. Community schools include leveraging the resources a community has to bring in all the services necessary to meet students’ and their families’  needs within the school building. It is imperative that we continue to invest in these successful strategies that enable students to graduate in higher percentages, go to college and earn higher wages as adults.

The state should be investing more in early identification and intervention which is critical to addressing mental health needs. We should be placing more psychologists, therapists, counselors, social workers, and nurses at every school. These professionals are better equipped to learn about potential crises, identify students with emotional or behavioral issues, and respond in appropriate ways. The role of school police officers should not be conflated with that of a school guidance counselor, social worker, student mentor, or educator. School police officers are sworn law enforcement officers who are almost exclusively trained and tasked with enforcing the criminal code.

Police officers are trained to enforce a criminal justice code and typically fail to use age-appropriate approaches in schools. We have been witnesses to repeated assaults on Black and Brown students by police officers who have escalated normal school interactions into physical attacks with the potential for deadly consequences. Our schools need counselors, not cops. It isn’t fair to our students to expect police to act as counselors and mentors.

An improvement in mental health resources in U.S. cities cannot happen without an intentional and accountable effort to divest funding and shift budgeting from school police officers to other necessary programs that actually promote a nurturing school environment.

Students are in fact asking for help. When students across the country recently marched out of their classrooms in the wake of a deadly school shooting in Florida, high schoolers in the Bronx didn’t call for more gun control. Rather, they shouted: “We need more social workers and counselors in all schools!”

We want all schools to provide a comprehensive program for mental health services so students can be proactively and consistently supported when dealing with emotional, mental, and social concerns.

We can build and sustain safe and supportive school communities by focusing on providing school communities with the tools, resources, and community partnerships necessary to help young people peacefully navigate conflict, build community, and create healthy and strong relationships. Proposals like the Judge Judith S. Kaye Safe and Supportive Schools Act (S.3036A-A.3873A), the Regents’ Supportive Schools Program, and budget items that fund school-based supports, offer real solutions that build safe and supportive school environments while keeping children in the classroom learning. They create strong state policies that support schools in building the skills and capacities of students and adults to constructively resolve conflict, and create learning environments that value everyone.