Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey wants to help schools combat the teen suicide epidemic immediately through state grants from a $20 million pot he created to hire additional mental health counselors and school resource officers.
In a press conference last week, Ducey sidestepped how he wants school districts to spend money, saying, “I would leave it to the school districts and the schools to decide what is important.’’
But he said the state Board of Education’s original plan to distribute the grants during the next school year is unacceptable, with the continuing pattern of campus shootings nationally and the spike in teen suicides throughout Arizona.
The board heard him loud and clear.
On Monday, it unanimously approved a plan from the state Education Department for the distribution of the $20 million that the Legislature appropriated earlier this year.
Tragically, the East Valley has been a hotspot for teen suicides, with 35 noted in Gilbert, Chandler, Queen Creek and Mesa since July 2017 Katey McPherson, an education consultant and suicide prevention advocate who lives in Chandler. Another five have occurred in nearby communities, including at least one in Scottsdale in that time period.
Ducey said his office had been working with the state Department of Education to develop a grant process that will allow school districts to receive a portion of the funds this fall.
Although Ducey is a Republican and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is a Democrat, they agree on the need to hire more counselors as soon as possible to help address the mental health needs of students.
“This is just a heartbreaking statistic you share,’’ Ducey said, after a reporter summarized the East Valley suicide cluster. “I know a lot of the media’s attention is on the school shootings, but the discussion has to be on the number of children taking their own lives.’’
Ducey said he views suicide prevention as an element of preventing campus shootings, with both serving as tragic examples of mental health issues afflicting young people that require intervention and treatment.
He said he sees a connection between the two types of tragedies because both involve young people with an “emotional disconnection from our society.’’
Although state officials hope the $20 million will help school districts address the problem, they realize it may be necessary to ask the legislature for additional funds if many grant requests go unfunded from a lack of resources.
“The school shooting makes the news, but the kids taking their own lives is equally heart-breaking,’’ Ducey said. “I think we need to look inward at what is happening in our society.’’
Stefan Swiat, a spokesman for Hoffman, said she agrees with Ducey that school districts have a pressing need to receive the money as soon as possible.
He said Hoffman was the only person on the state Board of Education to vote against holding back the money until the next funding cycle in 2020.
“She believes there is a social-emotional component that is completely neglected,’’ Swiat said, and that Arizona has a dire need for more counselors who are trained in helping students get the mental health services they need.
He said Arizona has the worst ratio of students to counselors nationally, with one counselor for every 905 students.
“She wants to see the money doled out as soon as possible,’’ Swiat said.
Ducey praised Lorie and Tim Warnock of Tempe, two educators who lost their son Mitch to suicide, for their courageous advocacy in addressing the mental health of young people. Lorie Warnock is a teacher at Mountain Pointe High School.
“This was really the genesis from the Mitch Warnock Act,’’ Ducey said.
The bipartisan bill, sponsored by Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Ahwatukee, and supported by key Republicans such as Chandler Republicans Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Rep. Jeff Weninger, requires that all school employees who interact with students in grades 6-12 receive training within three years in recognizing the early warning signs of teen suicide.
Bowie said the Mitch Warnock Act and Ducey’s appropriation for counselors and school resource officers made their way through the legislature independently, but both reflect an increasing focus on the emotional wellness of students and how it affects campus safety.
The plan approved by the board would give districts one week next month to apply for funds, but they would have to detail how a counseling program would work or whether SROs would teach a law course.
While recipients would be designated Oct. 28, they would not be able to start recruiting until after Dec. 2. School districts would have a chance to apply again in spring — if there’s any money left. It is unclear if the board will go along with this plan when it meets Monday.
Nikki Kontz, clinical director of Teen Lifeline, said the additional counselors theoretically will serve as a critical link in getting students the emotional assistance they need. She said a teacher, school bus driver or cafeteria worker would report any potential early warning signs they have noted to the counselor, who would meet with the student and refer them to treatment.
“It doesn’t matter how much training we do. We need to have adults there to support them,’’ Kontz said.
She said the $20 million is not enough to fully address the shortage of counselors statewide, but she appreciates Ducey putting the money in the state budget and doing everything he can to expedite districts receiving it.
An Education Department official on Monday estimated the funds would help about 350 to 400 of the state's 2,000 schools.
“It’s just the beginning,’’ Kontz said. “It’s definitely enough to make a dent, but we still need more. Our goal is that every child feels supported and connected, with a sense of hope for the future.’’
Kontz noted that school districts face a major task in expanding emotional wellness programs.
She said an estimated 108,000 school employees statewide need to be trained on recognizing the early signs of suicide.
McPherson said the grant applications should require that any counselors hired must have training in behavioral health issues and that districts don’t use them for the usual focus on academics.
“The districts need to be creative about how many people they need to do academics and how many they need to do behavioral health counseling,’’ she said.
In many school board meetings early this year, students begged for more behavior counselors, noting that most counselors focus on getting students into college and related activities.
Because current counselors are in such short supply and have a heavy caseload, they often admit that they have little time for behavioral health counseling, McPherson said.
“If you talk to any counselor, they will say ‘I would love to have more time to do one-on-one counseling,’’’ she said.
McPherson and Kontz both said Ducey is correct about the connection between teen suicides and campus shootings.
“Most of our school shooters have been suicidal before they were homicidal,’’ McPherson said.
Kontz said the key is to not allow emotional problems to worsen to the point that someone is willing to take their own life, or the lives of others.
“Whatever prevention we do early, we have less risk for school shootings or someone hurting themselves,’’ she said.
LeAnn Hull, a north Phoenix suicide prevention activist who has spoken to students in East Valley schools, said it is difficult for Arizona to ignore that its suicide rate is 24 percent higher than the national average.
She said she is gratified that Ducey, Hoffman and other state leaders are willing to address the problem and to overcome the stigma that has been attached to mental health by society for decades.
“I think it will help. Why not do something,’’ said Hull, who founded Andy Hull’s Sunshine Foundation after her son took his own life in 2012. “Is it the fix, no.’’
Ducey also noted that it isn’t just teen suicides that need to be addressed, but that rising incidents of suicides among military veterans and adults also need attention.