Metuchen school board will ask for public support Nov. 5 in their stand on mental health stigma

METUCHEN – Experts have not put their finger on one specific stressor causing the recent rise in student depression nationwide; however, whatever it may be, school officials in Metuchen are making moves in their efforts to address mental health programing and emotional support for all their students.

Come Nov. 5, the Metuchen Board of Education, in a separate budget proposal, or second question, will ask for $700,000 for the proposal to increase its school psychologist services; implement a therapeutic program at Campbell Elementary School and Edgar Middle School; increase behavioral support services; increase academic supports and intervention; increase supports and intervention for learning strategies district wide; and clerical assistance.

“We’ve seen students with all sorts of issues that impacts them,” said Tania Herzog, director of special services for the Metuchen School District, adding every student copes with situations from academic, personal and social struggles differently and there is a variety of factors at play. “There is a lot of literature talking about the impact of social media. I can’t speak to any causality, but I would think [social media] contributes as a stress for students.”

In the 2018-19 school year, Herzog said counselors and child study teams in the district provided mental health referrals to families of more than 50 students district-wide.

Some 14 students were placed on home instruction due to psychiatric hospitalizations or participated in short-term therapeutic day programs for crisis situations; 22% of referrals for special education included emotional concerns in the reason for referral, 10 of the referrals came from the secondary level; and seven students were placed out of district in the past two years for therapeutic services, Herzog said.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the average delay between onset of symptoms of mental illness and intervention is eight to 10 years.

Herzog, along with Schools Superintendent Vincent Caputo, Board of Education President Justin Manley and board member Brian Glassberg, held a presentation on the second question proposal on Oct. 3.

Caputo said he has seen more issues with student mental health and well-being in the past five years than his entire 30-year span as an educator.

“The information comes to us from our parents who reach out to us on a daily basis ‘How can you help my child? I want my child in school, I want my child happy, I want my child successful,'” he said.

In 2019, Caputo said the role of a school district has changed.

“One hundred years ago, people would have laughed about having nurses in every school. Now every school has a nurse, and 20 to 30 years ago, during the ‘Just Say No’ time, districts were adding substance awareness counselors,” he said, noting every district is now required to have student assistant counselors. “Decades from now, people will look back at 2019 as a critical point where districts across the nation and across New Jersey were adding mental health commissions and programs.”

If the second question is passed, taxes will increase 3.797, or 1.77%, for school taxes.

Manley said to find out the tax impact, he said take the assessment and divide by 100 then multiply by 0.066. For example, his home is assessed at $225,000 and his tax impact will be $148.50 per year. His taxes amounted to $13,414 this year.

For the average assessed home at $206,806, the tax impact will be $136.

Manley said the greatest expense in the school budget – second to salaries and employee benefits – is out of district placements for special education, occupational therapy and physical therapy and transportation.

In the 2018-19 budget, salaries and employee benefits made up 78.25% of total appropriations while out of district placements for special education, occupational therapy and physical therapy and transportation made up 11.75% of the budget.

“I’m not saying we should not be paying for [these services], but what we are seeing is those costs are rising faster than the 2% [spending] cap,” he said.

Manley noted the tuitions for private and public out of district placements are not capped by the 2% law.

“From 2016-19, there has been a 10.16% increase in out of district placements and transportation,” he said.

Manley said the district is not seeking additional funds to bring students back into the district. He noted a significant portion of students placed out of district don’t have mental health impairments and are more physically challenged in nature. The district will continue to serve and care for their needs, he said.

“The [proposal] is a preventative, early intervention process,” he said. “If students come back and we can offer the services and the parents want to participate, fantastic, that’s great. But I can’t sit here as board president and tell you we are going to save money.”

Manley said, “This investment has the potential to slow the increases we’re seeing in more extreme mental health and emotional support challenges at the high school by intervening early and preventing small challenges from becoming big problems.

“Times have changed and so has the world our students are growing up in,” he said. “We want to equip them with the skills necessary at a young age to handle the stresses and anxieties kids are reporting.”

Glassberg, who is the supervisor for guidance counselors for K-12 in Edison, said the goal is to help students stay in the classroom.

He said one crisis situation could take a counselor or child study team member an entire day, often more, which takes away services from other students.

Glassberg added school psychological services could provide outside resources for students as well as fill as a barrier for students who may feel more comfortable separating school and outside situations.

In May, the district implemented Effective School Solutions (ESS) programming at Metuchen High School for a select group of students.

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

With the additional funding, school officials said they will be able to assess different outside services and opportunities and see what is best for the needs of the district.

For more information, visit www.metuchenschools.org/metuchen/.

Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@newspapermediagroup.com.