Hayes, DeLauro Touted Federal Dollars for Mental Health Services in Visit to Waterbury School

(CT Examiner)


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WATERBURY – Pointing to a lack of mental health professionals in Connecticut schools, Congresswomen Jahana Hayes and Rosa DeLauro held an hour-long press conference a Westside Middle School to announce new spending to infuse dollars and personnel – including counselors, social workers and psychologists – into public schools.

“It was apparent before the pandemic, but it’s much more on the front burner today,” DeLauro told those in attendance on Thursday. “We ask our teachers, you know, to shoulder so much these days, in addition to what their full time job is… There are so many things teachers have to take up. Oftentimes kids are suffering from difficulties in and out of school from bullying to academic stress to the isolating effect of what social media does.”

Hayes, a former teacher, said: “We need people who have a direct connection to students to help them in real time when the crisis is happening. I’m so incredibly proud of this legislation.”

DeLauro, Hayes and a bipartisan group of lawmakers are touting two grant programs providing a total of $174 million for mental health service in schools across the United States — an increase of $74 million.

The exact amount that Connecticut will receive will be determined at a later date by the U.S. Department of Education, but DeLauro said the school districts deemed more at risk – like the Waterbury school district –  will be at the top of the list. In addition to the $174 million, there is an additional $100 million earmarked this year and for each of the next three years, via the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, for mental health services and providers to be divvied up among schools nationwide.

Waterbury Schools currently employ 59 school counselors for a population of about 19,000 students, K-12. Everyone speaking at the press conference, including Mayor Paul Pernerewski Jr., agreed that number was significantly too few.

Nyree Toucet, director of College and Career Readiness for the Waterbury School District, told CT Examiner at the press availability that the need is there, but that the staff just isn’t.

While it’s not clear how many more school counselors can be funded in Waterbury with the federal dollars, Toucet said she’d love to see at least 100 counselors in the city’s 33 schools.

“School counselors are seeing more and more students that are anxious and need support,” Toucet said. “There is more of a need than just five years ago. The world has changed; society has changed. Many students see their parents struggling and they come in with those same struggles. Social media has also had a big impact on how students pay attention. It impacts them going to classes.”

Nadina Bhadrasain, a Waterbury Magnet School student invited to speak at the event, later told CT Examiner that mental health specialists, like counselors and psychologists, have helped her tremendously. The magnet currently has two counselors on staff.

“We go through so much, trying to navigate our future, along with managing school and life. It’s a lot,” said Nadina, a junior. “It’s impossible for students to succeed without good mental health. Making sure their mental health is okay is super important.”

Nadina said peer pressure at her school was not a big issue, but preparing for college was significant source of stress.

“We are anxious about managing our course loads, taking the SATs and applying for college,” she said. “Our counselors help us fill out college applications and, if we are having a bad day, they always have an open door to talk to or to get support.”

Currently the Department of Public Health and the Middletown-based Community Health Center provide the bulk of the mental health services offered in Connecticut schools. DPH funds 260 school-based health centers, of which 157 provide mental health services. The Community Health Center runs 130 community health center providers in schools throughout the state.

Westside Middle School Principal Peter McCasland told CT Examiner that his school, which enrolls students from grade 6 to 8, has three school counselors, one for each grade, in addition to two social workers, a school psychologist and a behavioral counselor. 

McCasland said many of his students take advantage of the resources offered “in dealing with normal everyday life, especially post-COVID…. I think, now more than ever, we are trying to remediate the learning loss …. Some of the students come from backgrounds with trauma and they definitely need more intense services.”

Robert Storace

Robert Storace is a veteran reporter with stints at New Britain Herald, the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, Hartford Business Journal and the Connecticut Law Tribune. Storace covers the State Capitol for CT Examiner. T: 203 437 5950