Published Date: 2012-08-08
A year after school districts were given responsibility to provide mental health services to students with disabilities, advocacy groups and state officials see signs indicating at least some of the care isn’t being provided.
Anecdotal accounts from parents – especially those in low income neighborhoods or challenged by language barriers – suggest that many districts have improperly withdrawn services even when it is required by a student’s Individualized Education Plan.
An informal survey conducted earlier this year by a coalition of advocacy groups suggested that nearly a third of respondents had been told by school officials that mental health services would not be provided in 2011-12 because funding was no longer available.
Concerned that too many districts were not following the new law, officials at the California Department of Education issued a warning memo late last month reminding administrators of their responsibilities to an estimated 20,000 students statewide that depend on the service.
But some advocates say more might need to be done.
“It’s great that the CDE has picked up on what we said is going wrong and has done a good job of reminding school districts of what is supposed to be happening,” said Bettie Reinhardt, a spokeswoman with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, California – one of four groups that organized the parent survey back in February and is actively monitoring the mental health services issue.
“But there still needs to be follow up with families so that the state would really know what’s happening,” she said. “The CDE should want to know what is going on; they should be gathering the information and then getting it out to everyone – including the family stakeholders.”
Shifting responsibility for mental health services from county agencies to school districts was controversial – yet another response to the state’s four-year-long fiscal crisis.
In the past services for special education students such as mental health assessments, case management, individual and group therapy and rehabilitative counseling were required to be handled by county mental health departments. The idea to save money by moving the responsibility to schools was met with some resistance by districts who argued they had no experience or expertise in the area.
But Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders agreed to the transfer as part of budget negotiations, and local educational agencies were provided $221.8 million to pay for the new program. That included $3 million to create an “extraordinary cost pool” specifically to help small Special Education Local Plan Areas.
But as that transition money goes away this year, state officials have begun reinforcing exactly what district administrators are required to do.
“With the passage of AB 114 (last year’s education budget bill), it is clear that local educational agencies are solely responsible for ensuring that students with disabilities receive special education and related services, including some services previously arranged for or provided by county mental health agencies,” said Fred Balcom, director of the CDE’s Special Education Division in a guidance letter dated July 16.
“As this transition unfolds, LEAs must ensure that students continue to receive all services delineated in their Individualized Education Programs without interruption and in compliance with all applicable federal timelines,” Balcom wrote. “The provision of any related service must continue until an IEP team determines that the student no longer requires the service. The IEP must then be amended with the consent of the parent, guardian, or other holder of the student’s educational rights.”
The February survey, which organizers concede was not scientifically designed and may only offer hints at actual conditions in the field, included 19 questions offered in English and Spanish.
Over 500 families participated.
About one-quarter of the families participating in the survey said their child’s IEP included psychiatry and medication management in 2010-2011.
Almost 20 percent of the families said their LEA informed them they could no longer support a psychiatrist to provide medication monitoring.
Most troubling, perhaps, was the finding that nearly a third of respondents said they had been told that budget cuts would terminate the services in 2011-12. Many families also said they had not received prior written notice with the reasons for terminating residential services.
Balcom’s letter to LEAs reiterated tenets of the federal Disabilities in Education Act that govern many of the requirements called for in a student’s IEP.