Good afternoon. The time is now 2:07 p.m., we are in Room 123 of the John A. Wilson Building, and I am calling this additional meeting of the Committee on Education to order.
I’m David Grosso, Chairman of the committee on Education. I’d like to recognize the presence of a quorum. We have two items on our agenda today.
First on the agenda is Bill 21-361, the Youth Suicide Prevention and School Climate Survey Amendment Act of 2015. This legislation was introduced by myself and Councilmembers Allen, McDuffie, Bonds, Cheh, Nadeau, May, Todd, Silverman, and Chairman Mendelson.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth aged 10 to 24 in the United States, and non-fatal suicide attempts result in approximately 157,000 youth receiving medical treatment from emergency departments for self-inflicted injuries. Although D.C. does not often see the same news headlines as other jurisdictions with regard to youth suicides, the problem is prevalent in our community and can certainly impact student achievement.
According to the results from the 2012 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a survey of health-risk behaviors conducted in middle and high schools every two years in D.C. and around the United States:
o 16 percent of male and 28 percent of female middle school students had seriously thought about suicide;
o 10 percent of male and 16 percent of female middle school students had made a plan about how they would kill themselves;
o 8 percent of male and 13 percent of female middle school students had attempted suicide;
o 10 percent of male and 19 percent of female high school students considered suicide within the previous 12 months;
o 11 percent of male and 18 percent of female high school students made a plan about how they would kill themselves within the previous 12 months; and
o 11 percent of male and 15 percent of female high school students had attempted suicide one or more times within the previous 12 months.
Overall, according to the YRBS, 13.4 percent of high school students in D.C. had attempted suicide within the previous 12 months of the date of administration in 2012. That would equal an estimated 1,520 high school students who may attempt to end their lives in school year 2015-2016 if the results were applied to today’s enrollment. These results were higher in D.C. in comparison to the United States average.
These very high rates are cause for alarm, and we know that suicide is not the only mental and behavioral health concern when it comes to our students. You all have heard me speak a lot about complex trauma, stress, and its impact on student achievement. More and more urban school districts around the country are realizing that in order to truly address the growing achievement and opportunity gap in education, they must also focus attention and resources on mental health for students.
One approach is through professional development for school-based personnel on identifying, appropriately supporting, and referring to behavioral health service providers’ students with mental and behavioral health concerns. School climate surveys are another approach to addressing mental and behavioral health concerns in students by giving those who may not express their trauma outwardly an opportunity to express their feelings about the school experience. Results can create awareness and inspire school leaders to develop a plan to address the needs of their school communities.
The Committee Print for Bill 21-361 seeks to improve our schools ability to address the mental and behavioral health concerns for students. The Committee Print contains several changes from the introduced bill and I would like to go through some of them.
The Committee Print amends the “Department of Mental Health Establishment Amendment Act of 2001” to require the teachers and principals at D.C. public schools and public charter schools to complete the youth behavioral health training program administered by the Department of Behavioral Health (“DBH”) once every two years starting October 1, 2016. Currently, teachers and principals are only required to complete the training once. The Committee Print also requires that the youth behavioral health program include content that provides program participants with the tools needed to recognize the warning signs and risk factors for youth suicide and implement best practices for suicide prevention, suicide intervention, and suicide postvention.
The youth behavioral health program was established at DBH after the passage of the “South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012.” The training educates those who spend the most time with youth on common signals exhibited by those with unmet behavioral health needs. It also provides them with information on the referral process if they feel a youth requires additional assistance.
The current youth behavioral health training program does include content on the warning signs and risk factors for youth suicide, but the Committee feels that specifically including it in the D.C. Code will ensure that the content is never removed for space or timing constraints.
By also amending the program requirements to mandate that teachers and principals complete the training program every two years, the Committee believes that we can further ensure that school-based personnel have the most up-to-date information and resources to best identify, appropriately support, or refer for additional services a student with a mental or behavioral health concern.
The Committee Print directs OSSE to develop and publish online written guidance to assist LEAs in developing and adopting policies and procedures for handling aspects of student mental and behavioral health. The written guidance shall include model policies for identifying, appropriately supporting, and referring to behavioral health service providers’ students with mental and behavioral health concerns, and for suicide prevention, suicide intervention, and suicide postvention especially for at-risk youth sub-groups.
While the Committee feels strongly that every LEA should have these types of policies in place, we recognize that in some instances one-size fits all policy is not best for students. By directing OSSE to develop written guidance and model policies, the Committee believes that this will provide LEAs with important resources to help them develop policies that are best suited for the needs of their school community.
Finally, a component of the introduced version of Bill 21-361 focused on school climate surveys. Since the bill was introduced the National Institutes for Justice (NIJ) recently awarded a D.C.-based organization, Child Trends, a grant to implement and evaluate a school climate capacity-building framework. As part of this grant, Child Trends will be working with OSSE and the Office of Human Rights (“OHR”) to conduct this research in 36 D.C. public schools and public charter schools with 7th and 8th grade students.
The Committee was pleased to learn about this development, but believes that a strong pilot program must also include high school aged students as well. Therefore, the Committee Print directs OSSE to implement a pilot program for collecting school climate data annually through school climate surveys at select D.C. public and public charter schools serving grades 7-10. The Committee Print requires OSSE to conduct an analysis of school climate in D.C. based on the climate survey data and annually report its findings to the Mayor and the Council.
The Committee Print directs OSSE to submit a plan to the Council by December 1, 2019 on its plan to expand school climate surveys to all D.C. public schools and public charter schools serving any grade 6-12 beginning in school year 2020-2021.
While the Committee supports school climate surveys, I do want to say for the record that we are concerned that the survey designed by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, which will be used by OSSE, OHR, and Child Trends does not currently include questions on sexual orientation or gender identity. Failure to include these demographic questions may lead to inaccurate conclusions on how students view their school climate.
We recognize that researchers have not yet come to a consensus on best practices on asking these questions on surveys, especially surveys directed toward middle and high school aged students. However, research is getting better with time; therefore, we strongly urge OSSE and OHR to later add these questions at some point during the four-year pilot program. The Committee expects that by the time school climate surveys are expanded to all schools beginning in school year 2020-2021 that questions on sexual orientation and gender identity will be seamlessly incorporated into the surveys being used by our public schools and public charter schools.
I strongly believe that Bill 21-361 strengthens D.C. efforts with regard to identifying, appropriately supporting, and referring to behavioral health providers’ students with mental and behavioral health concerns. I urge my colleagues to support it. And with that, I would like to open the floor for any discussion.