Metuchen School Board takes stand on mental health stigma and will ask public for support


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METUCHEN – The popular saying is “it takes a village to raise a child.”

And with that saying, the Metuchen School District will ask “the entire village” of Metuchen to help in their efforts in addressing mental health programing and emotional support for all their students.

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“When talking about the issue of mental health, we have to really look past the numbers as well, these are our children really screaming for help,” said Metuchen Board of Education member Chris Derflinger. “Not necessarily my child, but it does take a village. This is one issue that I really feel is going to take our entire village and I think this is a great step we’re taking to involve the village and you are all taking ownership of that when you vote on this issue.”

Come November, the Metuchen Board of Education, in a separate budget proposal, or second question, will ask for $700,000 for the proposal to broaden services of Effective School Solutions (ESS), which provides innovative clinical programs for districts seeking to reduce costs while increasing the quality of their in-district education for students with emotional and behavioral problems.

“We had confirmed with the state and county before hand that the separate proposal – sometimes called second question – didn’t need to be in our preliminary budget,” Board President Justin Manley said. “It just needs to be included in the statement we publish later in April in advance of the final public hearing on April 30.”

The district is expected to be implementing ESS programming at Metuchen High School starting in May for a select group of students.

If the second question is passed, the taxes on the average home would increase $133 per year or $11 per month. In total, school taxes will have risen 2% over a two year period.

Tania Herzog, director of special services for the Metuchen School District, presented the proposal about Effective School Solutions (ESS), which provides innovative clinical programs for districts seeking to reduce costs while increasing the quality of their in-district education for students with emotional and behavioral problems at a meeting on April 16.

ESS, according to its website, serves 83 schools in 45 school districts in the Northeast.

Herzog said counselors and child study teams in the district have provided mental health referrals to families of more than 50 students district wide so far this year.

She said in preparation of the presentation to the board, she consulted with Suzy R. Azevedo, district supervisor of school guidance and counseling, school psychologists and counselors for their recommendations based on their assessments of student needs as well as supervisors, directors and superintendents of other districts throughout the county and state.

With the additional funding, the proposal calls for therapeutic interventions at Campbell Elementary School and Edgar Middle School; similar to what the district will be implementing this year at Metuchen High; expanded school psychologist services at all four schools;  increased child study team availability by providing clerical support staff; expanded behavior intervention services by board certified behavior analysts; academic support in the core areas of reading and math; and intervention focused on teaching study skills and organizational strategies to address executive functioning.

The therapeutic interventions include daily group and individual therapy, bi-weekly family therapy, monthly parent support groups, and monthly newsletters to parents and teachers, she said.

Herzog also presented jarring national statistics during the presentation. The average delay between onset of symptoms of mental illness and intervention is eight to 10 years, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“It’s incredible,” Herzog said.

The rates of adolescents ages 12 to 17 who experience a major depressive episode within a year rose from 8.7% to 13.2%, an increase of 5.2% between 2005 and 2017, according to a study published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology on March 13.

The journal looked at survey responses from more than 200,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 from 2005 to 2017 and almost 400,000 adults age 18 and over from 2008 to 2017.

Rates of young adults ages 18 to 25 who experience a major depressive episode within a year rose from 8.1% to 13.2%, an increase of 6.3% between 2009 to 2017. For young adults 18 to 21, who experience serious psychological distress within the last month increased 71%.

“These trends however were not evident in adults over 25,” Herzog said. “This suggests this is a generational shift in mood disorders rather than an overall increase across all ages.”

With that school officials are not allowing the district to become part of the national average statistic.

Schools Superintendent Vincent Caputo said mental health programing and emotional support has been a continuing priority in Metuchen. He said the district has implemented a number of items including small group interventions, working with Rutgers University and embedding social sensitivity directly into curriculum.

Manley said with the investment for the proposed ESS program, it could potentially reduce some of the district’s ongoing costs.

“There’s no guarantee and I’m not pitching to the public that is going to happen, it may not,” he said. “Much have been done with other special education investments over the last two decades or more. We strive as a district for inclusion education, we try to bring students back in and have them home.”

In the 2019 budget, Herzog has proposed developing programming in district for the 18- to 21-year-old age group. The funds previously allotted for out-of-district placements will go towards ESS program to provide the resources and support for students in need.

Currently the district has 389 special education students, which make up 17 percent of the student population, Herzog said.

“The amount of students placed out of district has remained fairly consistent over the last few years, but there is a significant projected increase in private school tuitions, which we have no control over,” she said.

Herzog said the bottom line, the district has to spend funds anyway to provide program for students in need.

“We were just providing them somewhere else at higher costs,” she said, adding sending one student out of district services one student, bringing resources in house would service more than one student.

Along with discussion of the second question, school officials have been discussing the preliminary 2019-20 school budget, which totals $39.7 million, up 3.25% over the 2018-19 budget. The board introduced the budget at a meeting in March 19.

Caputo said it is a tough budget year having to make a number of accommodations and changes to reach the district’s goal to have a flat even budget.

A public hearing on the proposed 2019 school budget will be held on April 30.

School Business Administrator Michael Harvier said ratables have increased to $24 million. For the average assessed house at $206,806, the tax rate will increase $19 from last year and pay $7,525, or 3% over last year.

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