Most New York school districts are inadequately providing mental health training to staff as required by the state Education Department and state law, according to a report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli's office released Wednesday.
The state comptroller's office audited 20 randomly selected school districts, and found 18 of them, or 90%, either did not offer mental health training or provided insufficient training, such as lacking instruction to recognize warning signs of mental or psychotic disorders in children or how to access approriate support and services.
“School personnel are often the first to notice if a student is having mental health challenges, and they need effective training to help them understand the signs and symptoms early on,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “Failure to do so can have devastating consequences for students, staff, families and communities. Unfortunately, my office has found much of this vital training is not taking place."
The comptroller audited 20 districts outside New York City with varying enrollment sizes, with 10,185 total staff members and 39,780 students. The comptroller's office included Belleville Henderson, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake, Canandaigua City, Coxsackie-Athens, Crown Point, Dover, Eden, Goshen, Greenport, Harborfields, Livonia, Malone, Port Washington, Rye Neck, Schalmont, Seaford, Unadilla Valley, Waverly, Wellsville and West Genesee central school districts in its audit.
The audit was completed between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.
All faculty and staff working in New York's 800-plus school districts are required to receive annual safety and mental health training with the 12 components outlined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under the New York Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, or the SAVE Act. The law requires school administrators to develop a comprehensive, districtwide safety plan to address crisis intervention, emergency response and management for staff and students.
Two of the audited districts, Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake and Canandaigua City, trained staff on all 12 of the U.S. HHS's recommended components. Twelve districts, or 60%, trained staff on at least one, but not all 12 of the federal department's components. Six districts, or 30%, did not train faculty or staff on any of the mental health recommendations.
"School districts should follow SED guidance so everyone from the superintendent to the substitute teacher is properly trained to identify problems," DiNapoli said. "Our nation is facing a mental health crisis, and we need to help our students.”
School districts must also certify to the SED commissioner that all staff have undergone the training, which must contain a component on mental health, and the date training was completed.
Five of the 14 districts that offered training that included at least one recommended mental health component maintained and submitted records of which staff attended the training. The other nine districts did not.
District officials are required to provide the annual school safety and mental health training by Sept. 15. About half of staff members at the five districts that offered a portion of the mental health training completed the training by the required date.
The staff who didn’t complete the training by the required date included teachers, assistants, aides, substitutes, coaches, nurses, principals, assistant principals, superintendents, counselors and bus drivers, according to the report.
Seven of the 20 districts provided guidance about how to access mental health support or services.
District officials argued they did not include the 12 required U.S. HHS's mental health components because they were unaware of the agency's suggestions or a lack of clear state Education Department guidance on the training required under the SAVE Act.
"Most district officials told auditors that the COVID-19 pandemic caused them to focus their attention on returning students to school safely for in-person training which impacted the school’s ability to provide timely mental health training," according to the comptroller's office.