The Executive Director of the Kentucky Psychological Association says two new House bills introduced this week could make Kentucky the leader in the country for making schools safer.
“Absolutely the most protective factor for school safety issues is for students to have a sense of belonging in their school,” said Lisa Willner, executive director of the Kentucky Psychological Association and elected school board member in Jefferson County.
“A school with a positive climate where it feels like they are part of a community and they feel like they have a role to play in the school.” Willner said.
That type of environment would be fostered by bills filed earlier this week according to Wildner. Democratic Representative Will Coursey introduced House Bill 604, which would require schools to hire mental health professionals to support students and staff and to guide violence-prevention efforts by the start of the next school year.
Coursey’s district includes Marshall County - where a school shooting occurred in January.
State Rep. Steven Rudy, the chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, is the prime co-sponsor of the bill. His legislative district also includes Paducah’s Heath High School, which was the site of a 1997 school shooting.
Democratic Representative Ruth Ann Palumbo filed House Bill 538, requiring mental health screenings for students in conjunction with immunizations.
“I think that they go hand in hand really well.” Willner said. “If we have mental health screenings but we don't have anyone in the school who knows how to interpret the mental health screening or how to respond to it. It could just result in kids being stigmatized--So, if there is a screening and there is a licensed mental health professional within the school there would be somebody who would be available not only to work with the student but to be able to provide guidance and support to teachers in understanding the kinds of issues and how to make the classroom suitable for students who may be facing all kinds of issues.”
Willner said there is a shortage of mental health professionals across the state and that most schools staffed with guidance counselors are weighed down with responsibilities that take them away from counseling.
“Much of their time is spent with things like scheduling testing and college recommendations[...] so as far as I know it’s pretty unusual for a school to have a dedicated licensed mental health professional within the school.” Willner said.
Within Jefferson County public schools, Willner said there are only 18 licensed mental health professionals between the 155 schools in the region.
“I think having these licensed mental health professionals in the schools not only is going to give support to individual students who may need a little extra encouragement and support but it's also going to be able to provide training and support to our teachers. Our teachers are so hard working and they have so many things that they are asked to do and so to ask the teachers to be expected to have mental health expertise as part of their profession as a teacher is really asking a lot.” Willner said.
If passed, Willner said she believes it will make Kentucky a national leader in school safety.