Nebraska schools get new resources to help troubled students

LINCOLN — State officials on Tuesday announced two new school-based efforts to help troubled students and their families.

In one, the Chadron, Hastings and South Sioux City school districts will share a $9 million, five-year federal grant aimed at strengthening connections between schools and local mental health services.

In the other, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Behavioral Health Division has put together a list of behavioral health information and resources for school staff.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said both efforts are aimed at reaching students before they become suicidal or a threat to others. He said early intervention can reduce costs and provide help to children without removing them from their homes or local schools.

“The whole idea is to be more preventative,” he said.

The Nebraska Department of Education is collaborating with the HHS Behavioral Health Division on the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant.

Sheri Dawson, director of the HHS Behavioral Health Division, said the money will be used for pilot projects in the three school districts. The goal is to promote mental health awareness, response and intervention through an array of school and community-based services.

She said the three districts were chosen because local behavioral health providers already have some connections with schools. The districts also will shed light on the needs in more rural parts of Nebraska.

Deputy Education Commissioner Deborah Frison said lessons learned through the pilot projects can be shared with other school districts around the state, which officials hope will broaden the impact of the funds.

“Mental health is one of the greatest concerns that our superintendents have,” she said.

Dawson said the new grant, plus the resource list, bolster efforts already underway to build a behavioral health “system of care” for Nebraska youths. Those efforts are supported with a separate $12 million, four-year grant from the federal government.

The system of care approach seeks to break down barriers so that children and families can get the care they need, no matter which agency they approach first.

Dawson said the approach has led to other collaborations between schools and mental health services providers, with solutions tailored to local needs.

She was noncommittal about whether a legislative proposal would have been helpful in meeting those goals, saying “there’s no one right way” to do so.

Ricketts vetoed the proposal earlier this year, which would have used $3.6 million in private funds to hire a social worker in each of the state’s 17 regional educational service units. The social workers were to help identify children in need of behavioral health services and connect those children and their parents with community resources.

The governor said that the bill would have duplicated existing HHS efforts.