Concerning the Mental and Emotional Health of Public School Students

To say that our young people deserve the best education possible goes without saying, and with the North Carolina General Assembly’s glossy championing of “reforms” like charter schools and vouchers to promote “school choice,” it can be easy to overlook the reality that faces schools when they are underfunded.

With all of the talk from legislators like Chad Barefoot, Jerry Tillman, Phil Berger, and their cronies (as well as the oblivious state superintendent who did not fight against cuts to DPI), please do not forget that per pupil expenditure when adjusted for inflation is remarkably lower than pre-recession days.

Add to that the refusal to expand Medicaid in North Carolina, a plague of poverty that affects almost one in four public school students, gerrymandered districts, and an unconstitutional Voter ID law and one can see that what has really happened is not just a systematic dismantling of public schools but a weakening of the very students and families who are forced to look to public schools for help beyond academics.

I am reminded of all of the “pro-life” rhetoric of many of our NC lawmakers. Take Lt. Gov. Dan Forest for instance. He once stated on his website,

“I believe strongly in the sanctity of life, and I have had the privilege of seeing many pro-life bills passed during my time in office. I am committed to standing up for the most vulnerable among us.”

Forest also was quoted during the debacle that was HB2 “Bathroom Bill” (which a version of just was defeated outright in TEXAS),

“We value our women too much to put a price tag on their heads.”

Pro-life means taking care of people outside of the womb as well, and if there is no such thing as needing to put a price on a “head” especially in defense of a phantom menace, then would it make sense to protect our most vulnerable against something that is very real and very present?

In a workshop during pre-planning for this new school year, I was presented with rather disturbing statistics shared by our school’s social worker who works on a variety of campuses within the Winston-Salem / Forsyth County School system.

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To summarize, social workers in the Winston-Salem / Forsyth County School system served 7,688 individual students for an average of 248 students per social worker. Those WSFCS social workers received 13,995 different referrals and provided 21,716 different interventions – 192 of them were interventions for suicide which is a 53% increase from the previous school year.

Those numbers are for ONE school district in ONE school year.

When students are hungry they cannot learn as well. When students are not healthy, they cannot learn as well. When students are insecure, they cannot learn as well. When students are mentally and emotionally hurting, they do not learn as well.

Yet, people like Dan Forest (who sits on the state’s school board and is a huge proponent of “school choice”) keep championing anemic public school budgets and misplaced priorities when it comes to fully funding schools.

You might be surprised to think that in the school where I work which has the largest student body of all system schools, we have a nurse on campus for only one day of the week. Each guidance counselor in my school has nearly 500 students under his/her care. There is only one school psychologist that serves our school and she has many campuses under her care. And you just saw the numbers that our system’s social workers face from just school-related referrals.

But we have a lawmaking body who believes in cutting teacher assistant jobs, limiting resources, removing class size caps, and holding certain types of classes hostage like the arts and PE that could help the mental and emotional welfare of students all the while touting their “surpluses” and “pro-life” stances.

That’s just plain hypocrisy.

Fully-funding schools means putting an ample number of professionals in place who can help students with any obstacle that could impede his/her personal and academic welfare.

While many in the general public only see academic achievement scores and while legislators seem to care only to see a few people tax dollars, public school teachers and staff members see individuals who sometimes have incredible barriers to learning and growth that must be confronted.

If the trends that our school’s social worker presented show no change in the public school culture that is being fostered by our state government, then those statistics will become even more stark.

And we will lose more of our students to maladies that could have been confronted both in schools and in society.

That’s not “pro-life.”

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