Schools fill holes left by service cuts
Districts adjust after loss of funding for mental health
This month, Easton Area school board members will be asked to approve agreements with the nonprofit Valley Youth House and Lehigh Valley Health Network to provide mental health services.
The agreement with LVHN is for an in-school behavioral health clinic at the district’s high school. The Valley Youth House agreement is for placing therapists in the district’s seven elementary schools. For the former, the district is simply providing space to the clinic, which can bill students through their insurance. For the latter, the district will pay $61.75 an hour.
The contracts in part replace a short term in-school therapy program that for years was offered through Northampton County. But at the end of the last school year, the county announced it would be cutting that aspect of the Student Assistance Program, which was previously provided by Valley Youth House.
The change, announced in March, came as a shock to
some district officials. Those who spoke to The Morning Call at the time were worried about the loss of in-school counseling, which eliminated some barriers to getting care, such as transportation.
Now some school districts in Northampton County are contracting to replace the service. At the same time, county administrators said they’re offering more services to students as well.
The change will allow the county to push about $450,000 to other mental health programs, something that’s much needed after state allocations were cut about 10% in 2012.
Administrators with the county said they shouldn’t be paying for therapy for students who have insurance, which happened under the old system.
They also point to additional resources for students that they’re providing — such as support groups run by a therapist, drug and alcohol treatment and trauma-informed mindfulness classes.
“We’ve been working hard together and jointly to work through this change and add extra things when we can, but at the end of the day we’re responsible to the taxpayer to make sure we’re appropriately using the funds and providing the services that can’t be funded by other means,” said Tiffany Rossanese, the county’s mental health, early intervention and developmental program administrator.
The move to eliminate inschool counseling puts Northampton’s SAP more in line with how other counties manage the program.
It also comes as the nation’s focus turns to mental health. After mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, President Donald Trump placed blame on mental illness and hatred (although many mental health experts said his statements were not backed by research).
And in Pennsylvania, Safe Schools grants are available not just for technology and programs that make schools physically safer, but behavioral health programs too.
It’s through one of those grants that the Northampton Area School District will continue to provide in-school counseling to students.
The district is using a $310,000 grant over two years to bring Valley Youth House in for a cognitive behavioral intervention program.
The program, rolled out only in the middle and high schools, brings in two counselors who will be available for students during each school day.
The program is traumabased, and students will receive at least three one-on-one sessions with certified counselors and 10 group sessions. It’s more time than the six sessions a student would get under the old program.
Northampton Superintendent Joseph Kovalchik said he’s hoping to get a grant to pay for counseling in the district’s elementary schools, too.
It’s too early in the school year to know exactly how the new program will differ from the old one.
In the Bethlehem Area School District, officials took the county up on a suggestion to partner with Magellan and other providers who could offer in-school mental health services. A combination of Colonial Intermediate Unit 20, LVHN and the Children’s Home of Reading will be in the school district. The LVHN partnership is new this year, said Claire Hogan, the district’s chief pupil services officer and Kathy Halkins, the supervisor of health services.
LVHN is working to get students with private insurance approved, it said, while the health network also has offered to support uninsured students on a case-by-case basis as an in-kind service to the district.
The Easton Area School District also used grant money to contract with Valley Youth House to provide counseling for students in its seven elementary schools. For middle school students, the district reallocated staff and will provide support through Communities In Schools of the Lehigh Valley, said Karen Trinkle, director of student and community services. The LVHN agreement will cover high school students.
“Valley Youth House has provided an exceptional service to us,” Trinkle said. “So that was a very big change for all of us.”
Valley Youth House, which previously contracted with the county to administer the SAP program, laid off therapists that used to work in the schools but has started to recall a few as districts ask to reinstate the program, said Pat McGarry, a senior vice president at Valley Youth House.
The Center for Humanistic Change, which runs SAP in Lehigh County, took over the Northampton contract this year. SAP is a statewide program designed to help schools identify and help students who have drug and alcohol or mental health issues. Anyone, including a child, can refer a child to the SAP program. A SAP team — often of district officials, teachers, specialists and a CHC SAP liaison — discuss the child’s needs and help determine if they need to refer the child to other services.
The organization is providing nine SAP liaisons to schools in Lehigh and Northampton counties who provide resources and educate districts about what’s available.
The liaisons can help direct students to an appropriate service, which might not be counseling, people at CHC said.
“We really help unveil the full breadth of services available to that school so the student is always front and center,” said Arlene Lund, the organization’s executive director.