By State Rep. Greg

VanWoerkom

When our students headed back to school in August, I had the opportunity to speak with our local school superintendents about their concerns for the upcoming school year.

The discussion quickly turned to the increasing struggle teachers and administrators have with children exhibiting violent behavior or disrupting learning environments. One superintendent provided an example of having to expel a kindergartener for violent behavior. What is a child’s life path if they cannot be in a classroom starting at age five?

One thing is clear, there’s an overwhelming need for greater mental health support for our kids.

Here in Muskegon County, our schools and Muskegon Area Intermediate School District (MAISD) have recognized the growing problem, which is the first step. Each school system has begun to address the issue in their own way, whether through a partnership with HealthWest, a one-on-one navigator system, or opening their own behavior health clinic. The schools want to solve this problem.

In September, the MAISD was awarded a five-year $4.5 million federal grant designed to help prevent youth violence by integrating mental health supports in schools. This is a critical component for MAISD schools to help combat childhood trauma that could lead to violence in schools, but it’s time for our state government to follow suit with similar support.

I worked with my colleagues on the House Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee earlier this year to prioritize dollars to combat the mental health crisis affecting children in schools not just in our community, but across the entire state.

We worked to make psychiatric services more accessible for children by increasing funding to behavioral health providers, such as pediatricians and psychologists. Medicaid reimbursements will be now 100 percent for children’s psychiatric services.

We prioritized dollars for children with autism by investing more than $1 million into the autism navigator – a statewide system providing resources to help families locate autism services. We also set aside money to assist schools with training educators to identify and assist children with behavioral health concerns.

Unfortunately, the governor vetoed each and every one of these important initiatives, calling them “pork projects,” implying they were frivolous spending measures.

Despite the governor’s many cuts, my colleagues and I continue to advocate for our students by introducing measures to restore funding to the services and programs. Under our plan, pediatric psychology and autism services would receive necessary funding as originally intended in the budget the Legislature sent to the governor in September.

Children’s mental health should be of the utmost importance, not only for the individual child in need, but for the entire classroom whose learning is impacted by continual disruption. This will be an ongoing issue, but I have committed to our school superintendents that I will work with them to develop a strategy to ensure that students receive the services they need.