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Student mental health needs have soared during the pandemic, panelists said.

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To meet the escalating mental health needs of California students, school districts need to look beyond their usual funding streams and find support from nonprofits, businesses and other government agencies, panelists told state education leaders on Friday.

Hosted by State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the panel included legislators, government health directors and executives from some of California’s largest foundations. The two-hour discussion featured ideas and insights into how schools can expand their mental health services even as K-12 funding remains stagnant and the state grapples with a $54 billion budget shortfall.

“We owe our young people. We have to be there for them, despite the difficult circumstances we face,” Thurmond said. “Let’s deliver the services our students deserve.”

Among the tips panelists offered:

  • Apply for reimbursement and matching funds through federal sources such as Medicaid and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
  • Partner with nonprofits such as Beyond Differences, which works with more than 1,400 California schools, to educate teachers and provide restorative justice and social-emotional programs for students.
  • Defund or reduce campus police forces and funnel the money toward counseling and community efforts to improve school safety.
  • Apply for money through Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, which is set aside for child welfare programs.
  • Work with nonprofit mental health agencies such as Seneca, which serves low-income families and foster children throughout California, to provide services directly to students.
  • Collaborate with county and state departments of health and social services to obtain grants or directly serve students and families.
  • In applying for foundation grants, look beyond those that only focus on education. Those aimed at social justice, criminal justice reform, early childhood, health care and the economic future of California may also fund schools.

In general, districts and funders need to view schools as a nexus of health and education, where millions of California students receive services, several panelists said.

“Schools are the center of our communities. Education has become a rallying cry for social justice in our nation,” said Lateefah Simon, president of the Akonadi Foundation, a civil rights organization based in Oakland. “That means we need private dollars and public dollars in the schoolyard.”

Support from foundations should not focus on one-time needs; it should be broad and long-lasting, said Nicole Taylor, executive director of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, one of the largest foundations in the country.

To make that happen, foundations can pool funds, work together on specific initiatives or launch public information campaigns to highlight students’ needs and programs that work, she said.

“Philanthropy is usually just a temporary fix,” Taylor said. “What we need is sustained investment and leadership and advocacy. We can look at data to see what’s working, and use our megaphone so people can understand that.”

Alex Briscoe, principal of California Children’s Trust, a policy nonprofit focused on youth wellness, said efforts to expand funding for student health is ultimately an equity issue, because Black and Latino students are disproportionately affected by poverty and physical and mental health challenges. Schools and funders need to address the larger picture of racism in order to significantly improve conditions for young people, he said.

“The bottom line is, 75% of the kids we’re talking about here are Black and brown, and most of the people making decisions about schools are white. We need to be talking about that. That’s systemic racism,” he said. “Not addressing that is like putting a Christmas tree ornament on a dead tree.”

He also pointed to the rising mental health crisis among children in California, noting that the top three causes of death among teenagers are all related to behavior: homicide, suicide and injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Taylor, of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, underscored the urgency. As the coronavirus pandemic continues unabated in California and the economy slides toward a recession, students’ mental health needs will only grow, she said.

“People are dying. Our kids are hurting. Families are hurting,” she said. “If we don’t get moving now, all these issues are going to be exacerbated.”

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