May 9, 2018

E4E-Boston Teachers Speak On $2.4M Proposal for Mental Health Supports

On Tuesday, May 8, E4E-Boston teachers Dan Foreman and Theresa Thalhamer and Executive Director Brandy Fluker-Oakley spoke before the Boston City Council to urge the the Council to approve $2.4 million for additional school psychologists, social workers, and nurses, sharing that they are necessary to helping students who have experienced trauma feel safer in schools.

Brandy Fluker-Oakley Testimony

Good evening President Campbell and Honorable City Councilors. My name is Brandy Fluker-Oakley and I am the Executive Director of Educators for Excellence-Boston, a teacher-led nonprofit that works to elevate educator voices in the policymaking process. Thank you for providing me with the opportunity to speak tonight about the urgent need to approve Mayor Walsh’s proposed $2.4 million appropriation for additional school psychologists, social workers, and nurses.

At E4E-Boston, we surveyed more than 1,000 Boston educators over the course of the 2016-2017 school year. Ninety-one percent stated that student trauma poses a major challenge in the classroom. Over the past year, Educators for Excellence teacher members have worked tirelessly to advocate on behalf of their students and urge BPS to hire more mental health experts. They wrote policy papers, testified at school committee meetings, and met with state legislators. Two of them will testify tonight on the importance of passing the $2.4 million appropriation. 

Unaddressed student trauma can make learning impossible. Memory, organizational skills,
 and comprehension are all disrupted by the physical impact of trauma on the brain. Beyond this, the stress associated with trauma causes students to feel unsafe and triggers fight-or-flight responses at seemingly ordinary occurrences. In these instances, schools often respond with exclusionary disciplinary measures, removing students from class and addressing the behavior with consequences instead of addressing the underlying cause with support.

This is if the student comes to school at all. The National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network notes that students in the older grades who are not receiving emotional and mental health support are far more likely to skip school, contributing to chronic absenteeism. In Boston, 26 percent of students are chronically absent, nearly double the statewide average. These students are more likely to fail, repeat a grade, and, eventually, drop out. Investing in resources that will address these students’ trauma head on is deeply necessary.

This appropriation is an excellent start, but it shouldn’t be the end of the conversation. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends one psychologist for every 700 students. Based on current BPS data, the district would need to hire 15 additional school psychologists to meet this ratio. The $2.4 million appropriation in question today will only cover 7 additional school psychologists, meaning the district will need to make further investments to ensure that they are fully meeting student needs. 

There also must be guarantees that these new positions will be student-facing, not just employed for testing or administrative purposes. Students should have an opportunity to forge relationships with guidance counselors and social workers who will ideally reflect and be able to relate to their local school community. The City Council could easily add these guarantees to the appropriation, and thereby cement their commitment to students with trauma.

I urge you to pass Mayor Walsh’s $2.4 million and provide a much needed increase in the number of school psychologists, social workers, and nurses in BPS. I also urge you to continue to listen to teachers on this issue, and let them lead us in the direction of policy solutions that will create a more equitable system for all students. 

You will hear from Dan Foreman and Theresa Thalhamer, two E4E-Boston teacher members here tonight to advocate for their students. I will also provide the Council with copies of testimonies from Matt Clark and Katie Mallon, two E4E-Boston teachers who couldn’t join us tonight but still wanted to voice their support for this appropriation.

Thank you for your time and for all that you do for the people of Boston. 

Dan Foreman - Teacher at East Boston High School in Boston Public Schools

Thank you, Boston City Councilors and President Campbell for taking the time to hear my testimony today. My name is Dan Foreman and I am a teacher at East Boston High. I am speaking with you because I am fully in favor of the Council passing Mayor Walsh’s $2.4 million appropriation that will allow the district to employ desperately needed school-based psychologists, guidance counselors, and nurses.

As someone who has spent the last 18 years in the classroom, I’ve seen too many students who live in crises and experience trauma every day, including homelessness or witnessing and experiencing acts of violence. Nearly two thirds of our students have experienced trauma. The effects of trauma manifest in many ways that hinder our students’ education, from chronic absenteeism, feeling depressed or helpless, and come into contact with the criminal justice system.

A few weeks ago, I had a member of the Boston Police Department speaking to students in my criminal justice class. Shortly into his speech, the officer got a call and had to excuse himself to take care of something urgent. He did not return. There was a student who had a gun on campus. They caught him after a brief chase into a nearby alley. The student left the gun there and police arrested him as he walked away. I am grateful that no one was hurt, but can’t help but wonder what type of history of trauma this student faced previously.

It is unacceptable for even one student to go without the emotional and mental health support he needs. Despite my students’ incredible strength and resilience, they need to know that someone cares about them and is looking out for them. I commend Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Mayor Walsh for taking steps to propose this incremental increase in the number of mental health support staff, which will help us create trauma-informed schools. Our current school psychologist to student ratio in the city is around 1:981. If City Council funds this bill, it will get us much closer to the recommended ratio of 1:700.

I want to stress, though, that this should not be the last time we talk about supporting students with trauma and creating trauma-informed communities. With roughly 56,000 students in BPS, thousands of kids will remain underserved if we let this be the last time we address this issue. These new mental health experts need to be in schools with kids, not used as a travelling crisis group who only react to events instead of forming meaningful and lasting relationships with students daily.

I am urging you today to vote to approve the $2.4 million appropriation proposed by Mayor Walsh and set guidelines to ensure that these funds are used to hire additional staff as intended. Thank you for allowing me to speak on this important issue. 

Theresa Thalhamer - Teacher at New Mission High School in Boston Public Schools

Good evening President Campbell and Honorable City Councilors. My name is Theresa Thalhamer and I work as a teacher at New Mission High School. I am also a member of Educators for Excellence Boston. Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led organization of nearly 30,000 educators based in six chapters across the nation dedicated to ensuring that teachers have a leading voice in the policies that affect their students and profession. I am here today to urge you approve Mayor Walsh’s $2.4 million proposal to add additional mental health experts to Boston Public Schools so that all Boston students -- and particularly our most vulnerable -- have equitable access to counseling staff and school psychologists.

Imagine going to work after you have lost one of your best friends. Now imagine that friend has died in a shooting. Do you think you would be performing at your best, fully focused on your work that day, the next week, that month? Stress and anxiety affect a person’s ability to learn. It is therefore critical that students have the emotional support to be able to access and enjoy their learning experience. Guidance counselors and school psychologists are critical in our effort to provide students with a stable environment to foster learning. The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of 700 students per counselor. In Boston, the school psychologist to student ratio is well in excess of this recommendation but approving the $2.4 million proposed by Mayor Walsh can help us make significant strides towards closing the gap.

This is only my third year of teaching, but I have already had too many students lose friends, parents, siblings, or extended family to violence. We strive to provide a safe environment at school, but we have little to no influence over what happens to our students outside of that safe environment. To help our kids who have experienced trauma grow and learn, we must provide them with tools to deal with the trauma so they are still able to function, be happy and enjoy learning despite what they have been through.

Nearly every teacher has students in her class who have experienced trauma. I am asking you to make sure that all students have access to professionals who can guide them through these difficult experiences, some of which include student deportation, violent or abusive relationships, homelessness or drug abuse, or even depression or mental illness. Students are struggling with these and other challenges each and every day; what I have shared today is based exclusively on what my students have experienced over the last three school years.

As much as I would love to be able to be teacher, social worker, and psychologist to fully support all of my students, I am only trained in one of those fields and I serve 70 students. My school makes sure to provide supports for all students by providing access to counselors and psychologist, but it is not easy. We request services from outside institutions and staff often go out of their way and work longer hours to make sure no student goes without the necessary support. Our school is able to provide far better than the recommended ratio of counseling staff to students, but not all schools have the budget or staffing levels to do that. This is just not acceptable.

I am therefore asking you to approve the $2.4 million for additional mental health experts in the budget for next school year.

Thank you very much for taking the time to listen to my testimony and for your continued efforts to providing a great education to Boston’s next generation.



To learn more and sign our petition, click here.