Dear honorable members of the Public Health Committee and the Committee on Children. Thank you for the opportunity to speak in support of SB2 and HB5001.
My name is Daniel Pearson and I am the State Director for Educators for Excellence, a teacher-led nonprofit with nearly 1,000 members statewide that focuses on student equity and elevating teachers’ voices in policy decisions. Today I submit testimony on behalf of our members who are current classroom teachers and educators who work tirelessly to ensure that their students have access to the best possible education and support inside of the classroom. We are grateful that the committee is putting together comprehensive SEL and mental health bills.
The traumas of institutional racism, poverty and violence and many other factors have plagued our students for far too long. These challenges have gone unaddressed for years, and COVID has only exacerbated the mental health crisis our communities have already been facing. For years, teachers and school districts have struggled with having adequate resources to meet students’ SEL and mental health needs, and it has only worsened following the return to school during the pandemic. A continuous lack of mental health resources within our schools has proven to be detrimental to students, and our youth will continue to suffer without comprehensive care and support to address these challenges.
Social-emotional learning and mental health practices are vital to students’ success. Without proper mental health support, trauma will continuously impact a student’s ability to achieve academic success. Too often, our schools' answer to students who are dealing with trauma is to suspend or expel them, directly contributing to the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects our black and brown students. Without the proper investment into mental health support in schools and the sufficient staff to run those programs, we will continue to neglect our most vulnerable students.
To ensure our students are receiving the care they need, and to prevent school staff from feeling overwhelmed, we need to prioritize proper staffing with manageable ratios and workforce development pipelines. If we are serious about addressing trauma and mental health issues, we need to make the proper investment into the mental health professionals who offer wraparound services and support for our students. We applaud this bill’s focus on creating sustainable workforce development pipelines for individuals to join the mental health field, but we need to further incentivize these individuals to specifically join our schools, as classrooms are typically the first places where students with trauma-related issues can be identified.
There are many great ideas being discussed, but none of our innovative programs will be effective without sufficient personnel to execute on these plans. For example, the National Association of Social Worker recommends a ratio of 1:50 when social workers are providing services to students with intensive needs. Currently, however, many of the mental health professionals in our schools have workloads that make this ratio impossible to achieve. Due to their incredible workloads, they spend most of their day performing assessments on students, rather than building relationships and understanding the root causes of the students’ challenges. We need to ensure our students are getting the individualized care they need and that our mental health staff have manageable workloads and ratios to effectively perform their jobs.
COVID has exacerbated and brought to light the incredible mental health crisis that our youth are facing and have been facing for years. Our students are distracted, reserved and anxious, and dealing with immense pressure. They need adequate mental health support to excel in school and teachers need robust professional development focused on SEL and trauma-informed teaching to help lead these conversations and provide restorative practices within classrooms. Teachers are often the first to identify when students display challenges or signs of trauma, and they need the mental health support staff and resources necessary to provide these students with the help and assistance they need. Additionally, we need to be sure to incorporate SEL throughout the entire school day, not just in our classrooms, but also from the bus ride, to the lunch room, to after school programs. Our students should be surrounded by SEL-trained and trauma-informed adults. If we do not seize our current opportunity to increase mental health resources, we are putting our students at an incredible disadvantage.
It is also important to note that we believe that the creation of the new trauma coordinator position within SDE is a fantastic idea. We would love to see that position also incorporated at the district level. There are many moving parts in larger districts, and they need to have the dedicated staff to coordinate all the mental health resources at the district level, especially in our highest needs districts.
With the extreme differences and inequities between school districts, limited access to mental health resources is just another way that we further disenfranchise so many of our youth, primarily black and brown students and those living in poverty. We have the power to change this and ensure these students are receiving the care they need.
To provide adequate education and care for our students, Connecticut needs to ensure there are more mental health staff in schools, provide more mental health resources to students and equip teachers with the proper tools to serve their students emotionally, and that needs to start now. Without these changes, we are doing an immeasurable disservice to every student and the teachers that serve them with unwavering commitment.
Founded by public school teachers, Educators for Excellence is a growing movement of more than 33,000 educators nationwide, united around a common set of values and principles for improving student learning and elevating the teaching profession. We work together to identify issues that impact our schools, create solutions to these challenges, and advocate for policies and programs that give all students access to a quality education.
For more information, please visit e4e.org.