Good afternoon Chairperson Gray and members of the Council. My name is Shannon Hodge and I am the Founding Executive Director of the DC Charter School Alliance, the local non-profit that advocates on behalf of public charter schools to ensure that all students in the District receive the great public education they deserve. I am here to testify in support of the Department of Behavioral Health’s (DBH’s) school-based mental health program.
The District is facing a major mental health crisis as the COVID-19 global pandemic continues to unfold, as social distancing and remote learning and work increase our isolation, and other disruptions to our everyday lives linger for months. Low-income families in the District—most of whom are Black, brown, or immigrant and live East of the River—are facing disproportionate coronavirus health outcomes and are less likely to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, they are more likely to have increasing housing, food, and economic insecurities, all of which add additional stress and trauma to their lives.
Our young people are experiencing this in alarming ways. From its fall survey on the well-being of DC’s students, EmpowerK12 reports that “[t]wo-thirds of students have been unable to participate in an activity that they normally do and makes them happy,” and “[n]early one in five students recently experienced the loss of a family member they live with.”1 Seemingly every other day, local headlines scream about the loss of a young life to violence.
We’ve also heard from school leaders the challenges their students are facing during this pandemic, including balancing school and work and experiencing suicidal ideations. Our schools need to be equipped to respond to the needs and concerns that students bring to their virtual spaces and physical buildings. Now more than ever, the District of Columbia’s most vulnerable children and families need strong, consistent access to high-quality and affordable mental health care services.
School-based mental health programming is integral to supporting these students, and accessing this assistance should be simple and straightforward. The DBH school-based mental health program goes a long way to meeting the needs of our students and schools and is one important way the District can disrupt inequities in access to resources. We are grateful for the work DBH has undergone to thoughtfully use research to design the program, match schools and community-based organizations, and assign clinicians to schools.
Over 40 charter organizations currently have a clinician assigned to their schools through the program, greatly increasing the ability of students to access much-needed mental health support. This also greatly increases the opportunities for teachers, leaders, and support staff to ensure that students experiencing behavioral health issues are connected to trained professionals.However, more than 20 charter organizations lack a DBH-assigned clinician at a time when mental health professionals are needed more than ever.
The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic, distance learning, and other “new normals” means that more children and families are at risk of mental health challenges. The District must take the necessary steps—protecting, adequately funding, and expanding the DBH school-based mental health program—to ensure that students have support addressing their mental health needs and are ready to learn.
At a time when so many are looking for new solutions to guide us through recovery from the global pandemic, we must not overlook the tools that have been helpful to us along the way. The DBH school-based mental health program has been and continues to be a critical tool for schools, students, and families. It will be essential during and after recovery from COVID-19.
Thank you for your time and attention to this matter, and I welcome your questions.
1 COVID-19’s Impact on Student Well-Being (November 2020).
2 Updated CBO and DBH Clinicians Masterlist, February 2, 2021.