The 87th Texas Legislature convened on Jan. 12, 2021, and will adjourn May 31, 2021. The legislature meets every two years to set the state’s budget and consider and implement new legislation. For each legislative session, the Arlington ISD issues a legislative agenda with a series of priorities that are important to the district and public education in Texas. The district shares the agenda and priorities with our elected officials and seeks their support.
The article below is the fourth in a series designed to share and explain the district’s legislative priorities with our stakeholders. This story addresses Legislative Priority F. For more information on all the priorities and to read the entire legislative agenda, please visit aisd.net/district/legislative-affairs.
Arlington ISD Legislative Priority F
Identify effective solutions and appropriate ongoing funding for identifying and serving students with mental health needs.
Arlington ISD has made student mental health a priority and asks the state to provide resources and policies to support this effort both here and across Texas.
“We know our students have a lot of things to deal with, and even more during COVID-19,” said Arlington ISD Board of Trustees president Kecia Mays. “It is crucial for a district to consider the mental health needs of our students and staff and do what we can to promote their holistic health. It’s imperative for the wellbeing and safety of everyone.”
What Arlington ISD does for student mental health
The district takes a two-pronged approach to assist students with mental health needs. First, through the social and emotional learning department, it seeks to proactively reach all students and teachers and equip them with the knowledge and resources they need to support their mental wellbeing.
Second, in the security department, a threat assessment team identifies students who might pose a threat to themselves or others and then works to provide these students with whatever resources they need to cope and recover.
1) Social and Emotional Learning
Arlington ISD’s social and emotional learning (SEL) department was created several years ago with a vision that “all students will possess the social and emotional skills necessary to maintain self-worth and to thrive in their communities.”
“When we use the term self-worth, that means that they are mentally healthy,” said Luis Valdespino, senior director of the district’s social and emotional learning department. “To do that, we have to teach them the skills to be mentally healthy.”
To teach those skills, the SEL department is developing and implementing curriculum for students and strategies for teachers that address five competencies: 1) self-awareness, 2) self-management, 3) social awareness, 4) relationship skills and 5) responsible decision making.
“Our goal is for our kids to attain all of these competencies through direct instruction and learning opportunities,” Valdespino said.
In addition to the curriculum piece directed toward all students, the SEL department also provides additional resources and services for students with individual needs. School counselors take the lead for many of these efforts.
“During the pandemic, we’ve really escalated our counselors’ availability,” Valdespino said.
New hotlines were started to assist students and parents with mental health needs and community resources. A referral process was initiated for students who need counseling, and a new after-school-hours counseling clinic is starting this month. Through the clinic, students and staff can receive in-person or virtual counseling from Arlington ISD counselors and staff who are licensed therapists at no cost. Other initiatives include an app coming next school year that will allow teachers to survey students about their social and emotional learning and immediately offer intervention videos based on responses.
Another example of the resources the district offers comes from the student outreach services (SOS), an arm of the SEL department. Social workers and counselors from SOS assist homeless students and connect their families with resources outside the district.
To learn more about SEL, click here to visit the department webpage.
2) Security and threat assessments
Two years ago, the Arlington ISD formed a partnership with the Arlington Police Department and My Health My Resources of Tarrant County (MHMR) and launched a Multidisciplinary Threat Assessment Team (MTAT). The main goal of the MTAT is to promote a safe school environment by identifying at-risk students who may present a public safety concern, assess their risk for engaging in violence or other harmful activities, and identify intervention strategies to assist them in being productive students.
The MTAT includes a representative from Arlington ISD, a social worker from the APD and a social worker from MHMR. Together the team oversees and provides support for campus level teams that work directly with and assess at-risk students.
If a student makes a threat, exhibits threatening behavior or displays suicidal ideation, a thorough assessment is conducted of the student’s needs along with his or her family’s needs. The MTAT then works to make sure those needs are met.
“This team is going to dive in and do whatever it takes,” said David Stevens, Arlington ISD director of security.
The MTAT has many community partners that help provide whatever resources are needed, whether it’s for mental health, physical wellbeing, food security, social issues and more.
“Even if they need housing, we have resources for that,” Stevens said.
The goal is to restore the student.
“It’s not punitive,” said Dr. Nkechi Madueke, Arlington ISD’s multidisciplinary student supports coordinator and leader of the MTAT team. “It’s about rehabilitation.”
And it’s working.
“We do have a lot of students who are getting more resources outside of school,” Madueke said. “The families are getting support. Students are getting in to see doctors or therapists or whatever they need. They are getting more support than they might have in the past because we are identifying them earlier.”
Arlington ISD’s MTAT is also ahead of the curve.
A year after the MTAT was established in Arlington, the Texas legislature made this type of program mandatory at every school district in Texas.
“So many districts are still trying to figure out how to do this. Our team is already there,” Stevens said.
And many districts are now looking to Arlington ISD as the model to copy.
But there is a big problem. The mandate from the state to develop threat assessment teams is unfunded. The state provides no money to support the program.
For Arlington, a grant in 2018 got the program off the ground and provided the salaries for the MTAT members. However, the grant expires at the end of this year. APD will absorb the cost for their role and Arlington ISD will take on the district’s related salary and expenses, but the funding for the MHMR representative will expire and she may be lost from the team.
“It’s going to hamper the team,” Stevens said. “This unfunded mandate really hampers what the state is wanting to accomplish. It’s a great idea, but by not having the money, you can’t build the teams you need.”
What the legislature can do
Arlington ISD’s legislative agenda offers three ways the legislature can help:
1) Work with school districts to create a platform that identifies students with mental health needs.
As all districts are now required to have threat assessment teams, a statewide platform with shared information would help districts better provide services to students in need and promote safety and security in all of our schools.
2) Provide appropriate ongoing funding for identification, services and supports for students with mental health needs.
Threat assessment teams are required by the state but are unfunded. Funding is needed for the MTAT to be fully staffed and operate effectively as intended.
Additional funding for social and emotional learning would be helpful as well. Many of Arlington ISD’s SEL efforts, including the additional resources offered during COVID, like the counseling and resources hotlines, currently receive no state funding.
3) Allow school districts flexibility to determine how safety and mental health funds are spent in order to best meet local needs.
School districts are all different and have different needs. It is imperative that districts have the flexibility to develop and fund programs that work best for our area and our students.