Dayton schools’ mental health services expansion hits delays

Dayton Public Schools hopes to expand its mental health services for students even further than planned a few months ago, but the process has hit obstacles, causing some difficulties for families seeking services now.

Last year, each Dayton school was served by one of several agencies — including South Community, Samaritan, Trumpet and Eastway — but those services were generally limited to students whose families were Medicaid-eligible. That has changed only slightly this fall.

“All of the organizations are still invited to offer their services in the buildings, but some of them have chosen to pull back somewhat because we did a request for proposals so we could have one or two groups as opposed to lots of them,” Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said.

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In late May, the school board approved spending $882,000 a year to hire 10 new behavioral/mental health specialists to work directly with students struggling with trauma and mental health issues. But negotiations with mental health providers did not produce a deal this fall.

Now that Governor Mike DeWine and the Ohio legislature have approved additional “student wellness” funding in the state budget, Lolli said the district is changing its approach and hopes to raise that to 25 specialists — one for every Dayton school.

Treasurer Hiwot Abraha told the school board last week that Dayton has received more than $2.9 million in wellness funding this year, and Lolli said that amount will be more than $4 million next year.

“With the governor’s money, we’re having conversations with Children’s Hospital on a partnership,” Lolli said.

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In the meantime, families continue to fight to get good services for their children in need, including services that may be required under an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for special education students.

Dayton Education Association President David Romick said his members have cited “a little bit more difficulty” getting kids the needed services this fall. He cited two reasons — a pullback by some of the providers as well as an increase in need after a tornado and a mass shooting affected many families’ lives this summer.

Parent April Turner said both of her adopted sons have received mental health services from a young age. Her problem with services in Dayton schools has been a lack of coordination between providers. Her son at E.J. Brown Middle School sees a therapist from one agency outside of school, but the in-school provider is from another agency. For contractual rules, the in-school counselor can’t see her son.

“I felt it was unfair that if he went into a full-blown panic attack, he was not contracted to see the mental health therapist who was on staff at the building full time, and she was not able to assist him at that moment,” Turner said.

Turner said her son’s therapist had been trying to arrange to visit the school, to meet with a group of students she works with, but had a several-week delay in being able to do so this fall.

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Syretta Cunningham, whose daughter just graduated from Stivers, had a similar problem that shows the hoops some parents have to go through to get their kids help. Stivers had a mental health provider in the building, but she couldn’t serve Cunningham’s daughter, who had private insurance.

“She referred us to I believe St.E’s, but they don’t take our insurance,” Cunningham said. “Then I ended up going through my job to get help, through our Employee Assistance Program, but once that (number of visits) was over with, the next provider I ended up picking did not take our insurance.”

Cunningham eventually found a match for her insurance, but it took time.

“I don’t know if I would necessarily blame the school district,” she said. “They don’t have control over whether an agency is going to accept private insurance or Medicaid.”

But Lolli said that is part of the current planning — to provide access to mental health services for all students who need them, regardless of insurance situation.

Kemp Elementary Principal Stacy Maney said that would be a big help to solve inconsistencies in service, where different schools have different levels of support. She also hoped that an overseeing agency could provide a rubric or set of qualifying factors that school-level staff can use to identify students in need of services for specific issues.

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“The dream scenario is a collaborative agency that manages when we’re seeing problems, and our team’s interventions aren’t working,” Maney said. “So we can refer them on, and they can determine the route each specific child needs to go to get the best services for them.”

Lolli said she wants mental health providers to create clear plans for students, including targeted services with an end goal and performance metrics. It would be another tool, along with the CHAMPS classroom management training, social-emotional learning curriculum in fifth and sixth grade, five recently hired consultants who train teachers on de-escalation, and the soon-to-begin PAX behavior intervention effort.

“We’re hoping to see whether this couple-pronged approach will help waylay some of the mental/behavioral health issues that we see, and we’ll truly be able to identify those kids who are in need of the support of a counselor,” Lolli said.

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