ACCOG weighs cost of mental health services in schools

Outgoing Littlestown Area School District Superintendent Christopher Bigger said Thursday that schools are doing their best to handle the increasing problem of mental health issues among their students but cautioned it is not their area of expertise. He was speaking to the Adams County Council of Government members.  The organization provides information of interest to municipal and borough representatives and school leaders.

“We struggle,” Bigger told the group. “It is not our area of expertise, and we handle it the best we can.”

Chris Bigger 3

Bigger looked at the increasing number of students who have been diagnosed or have symptoms of various mental health disorders. He presented global information that suggests the numbers are high – one in seven – which in his school district represents 200 students.

Using documentation from the Pennsylvania Youth Survey conducted biennially in Commonwealth Schools, Bigger said the data indicates everything is going up. He pointed to evidence from the survey indicating that 45 percent of students reported feeling sad or depressed most days, while 30 percent felt life was not worth living. “These are scary numbers,” said Bigger. “Worrisome numbers.”

The schools respond to this need by offering what Bigger referred to as “soft” and “hard” school solutions. The soft solutions include additional counseling, psychological and behavioral services, student screening for anxiety and depression, weekly groups, and partnering with third-party mental health and counseling partners. The hard solutions include armed guards, secure entrances, drills, visitor management, ID scans, cameras, vape detection systems, and threat assessment teams.

As Bigger pointed out, this does not come without a cost. Several representatives from the six area school systems said they spend about $100,000 annually on mental health care solutions. The cost for salaries of school officers and equipment can exceed $150,000. For one school system, it was a choice between an armed guard or a social worker.

Other concerns straining the districts’ budgets are cyber safety, staff mental health, and access to drugs and alcohol as societal norms change. Fairfield Area Schools Superintendent Thomas Haupt said half of their social worker caseload is elementary school students. Bigger agreed, saying that the problems are no longer just at the middle and high school levels.

Bigger believes that while schools are doing what they can, he reiterated that it would be better if solutions could be found outside of the school building. “Schools don’t want this job. We prefer not to be part of this problem. If you continue asking the schools to solve all the problems, we’re not accomplishing our core mission goals.”

While Covid-era grants and state funding are currently used in many districts to fund these responses to the mental health crisis, those will soon phase out. Schools will then have to decide how and if they can continue to support mental health services for students and their families. Bigger said his school district is at that point, with funding disappearing at the end of the 2023/24 school year.

In other ACCOG business, an anticipated glass recycling facility will soon be open in Adams County, with the ribbon-cutting ceremony taking place on Nov. 4. Commissioner Randy Phiel said that as long as a vendor is available, the center will be open every other Saturday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Residential and commercial glass bottles and jars of all colors will be accepted. Construction glass, such as windowpanes and auto glass, will not be accepted.

Phiel reported that the county does not plan to raise taxes for the coming year. Tax credits are available for emergency services volunteers up to $250, depending on hours spent and the type of volunteer work recorded by applicants and approved by their supervisors during the year.

The next ACCOG meeting will occur on Nov. 16, 8:30 a.m., at the county Emergency Services Building. Commissioner Marty Qually said the county broadband task force will be presenting an update on the broadband initiative at that time.

Featured Image: Chris Bigger

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Judith Cameron Seniura is a freelance reporter. She began her journalism career in the early ‘70s and has written for newspapers, magazines, and other media in Ontario, Canada, Alaska, Michigan, Nebraska, San Antonio, Maryland, and Pennsylvania.

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