South Brunswick school district could lose state funding for mental health programming

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Under the state’s proposed plan to reform the student mental health system, the South Brunswick school district may be at risk of losing mental health programming due to a loss in state funding.

South Brunswick is one of 62 school districts that face the halting of mental health programs following Gov. Phil Murphy’s announcement in early October of the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services (NJ4S) network.

The new NJ4S network is expected to launch in the 2023-24 school year.

Scott Feder, superintendent of the South Brunswick school district, in a letter to the school district community on Oct. 17, said it was “devastating news” that had been delivered to public schools on Sept. 29.

“The New Jersey Department of Children and Families (DCF) and New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) ambushed districts at the above meeting announcing a complete overhaul to the funding that would strip South Brunswick of its support for school-based youth services that currently funds our BRIDGE program and direct partnership with Rutgers Behavioral Health,” he said.

The impact of the state’s plan on South Brunswick would result in the school district losing more than $550,000 in aid.

The loss in aid will close mental health programs the district provides, such as the BRIDGE [Building, Respect, Independence, Diversity, Growth & Education] program at South Brunswick High School and Crossroads North and South middle schools.

According to the school district, the BRIDGE program provides recreational and mental health services at the schools. Services include individual, group, and family counseling; conflict resolution; parent support groups; and recreational programming.

Feder noted that while the district agrees that the state needs reforms and more funding for mental health, they have announced a plan that, once again, takes money from South Brunswick.

“Starting in 2023-24, this new program will eliminate the School Based Youth Services Programs (SBYSP) that are in-house mental health services occurring in public schools,” he said. “The level of concern amongst the 62 districts, much of the mental health field, and many other organizations, is extensive.”

The NJ4S network is proposed to be operated by the Department of Children and Families through regionally based hubs that offer proven prevention strategies for students and their families.

Each hub will integrate programming with existing state and local services, improve coordination and reduce duplication of effort. These hubs are to provide a tiered menu of prevention and intervention strategies that can be deployed in high-need districts, according to the governor’s office.

They are expected to focus on promoting positive mental health; teaching and strengthening social, emotional and behavioral skills; and supporting a positive school climate and staff well-being.

Each hub will also take into account the needs of the entire family consisting of serving individual students and serving as connectors to engage existing supports through the Children’s System of Care and other state and local resources to maximize youth mental health system’s efficacy and avoid duplication of services, according to the governor’s office.

Staffing at the hubs will consist of a hub director, support staff, prevention specialists, and mental health counselors who can be mobilized to support the needs of schools.

In addition, the hubs will deliver services and support at libraries, community centers, faith-based organizations, social service agencies, and even residential homes, according to the governor’s office.

Feder said the state’s plan is “ill-conceived, lacks detail and most importantly is being based on misused and faulty data.”

“For example, the survey they used to justify some of their decision making has already been denounced by its own author as non-scientific and was not designed or intended for the purpose that the DCF and DOE have elected to use it,” he said.

“Furthermore, this entire move to defund school-based programs goes against best practices in how to support student mental health needs.”

Feder added that the school district has teamed up with Save our Schools NJ and other state organizations.

“Please know that we are not sitting idle. Rather, we have engaged with the governor’s office and will be testifying against these changes,” he said.

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