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MCPS considering virtual mental health services for students

  • Health

The Montgomery County school board met on Thursday to discuss school safety issues.

As Montgomery County Public Schools again reviews its safety policies – including its relationship with police – students and community members continue to push for more urgent implementation of mental health resources.

In the days following the Jan. 21 shooting at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood that left one student in critical condition, MCPS Interim Superintendent Monifa McKnight pledged a countywide review of the district’s safety procedures.

On Tuesday, the district pitched a plan that would expand police officers ‘role in school safety, less than a year after the county disbanded MCPS’ school resource officer (SRO) program.

Under the current program, “community engagement officers” patrol areas around schools, but are not stationed in school buildings, as SROs used to be. Principals do not contact the officers directly and the officers only respond to serious incidents reported to police.

In the proposed updated model, the officers would have a “dedicated work station” in high schools, but would not be permanently stationed there, according to MCPS, and could be contacted directly by principals.

School board President Brenda Wolff said she does not want SROs to return to MCPS, but believes the proposed update to the community engagement officer model is a “middle ground.”

But, on Thursday, during a special school board meeting primarily focused on getting feedback from the community, students and parents were laser focused on mental health needs.

In passionate testimony, Himanshu Gediya, a Magruder student, recalled the day of the shooting. He said students no longer feel safe at school because they “know nothing has changed.”

“SROs were taken out of MCPS to provide more mental health support, but that transition was rushed and never made,” he said. “Where are the mental health resources our students need? How are we supposed to feel safe at school knowing an incident like this can happen again? ”

MCPS has struggled to hire 50 social workers it has funding for, citing a nationwide shortage in the professionals. Five of the positions have been filled, according to MCPS officials.

On Thursday, the school board pressed the district to be more innovative, and to find ways to provide resources, even if it’s not the ones they originally wanted. Something is better than nothing, the board said.

“What other strategies, what other support groups or providers, or what other low-level interventions can you do with a less-trained person that’s still going to help the process,” board member Karla Silvestre asked. “It’s maybe not the Cadillac you want, but you’re still providing support to students.”

Board members talked about possibly incorporating telehealth mental health services and looping in other staff members to do the paperwork that often burdens the district’s counselors and psychologists. Telehealth refers to people connecting electronically to a health provider who is somewhere else.

McKnight said MCPS is “absolutely committed” to contracting with companies to “provide the support students need.” But, she said, it can be an involved process to find companies or groups that can provide largescale services to a 209-school district. It can also take time to establish memoranda of understanding and ensure they have the proper licensure and background checks.

Board member Lynne Harris said she was a “bit frustrated” because she felt MCPS administrators had not had a “sense of urgency” to find and implement the mental health services that students and staff members have been asking for.

“The first question out of our mouths needs to be, ‘How do we make this happen?’ She said.

McKnight said MCPS officials on Monday will provide a clearer timeline for when virtual mental health services could be implemented.

The school board will then continue its discussion about the school safety review on Feb. 24.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at [email protected]