U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) filed legislation today to hire more mental health professionals in schools across the country.
The move comes in the wake of recent school shootings in Florida and Texas, and a 2016 report from the Florida Association of School Psychologists that found Florida has only one school psychologist for every 1,983 students.
Compared to the nationally recommended ratio of between 500 and 700 students per psychologist, the data shows Florida has only one-fourth the number of school psychologists it needs to properly care for its students. And that lack of available mental health professionals in Florida’s schools is one of the reasons why only a small percentage of children in Florida who need mental health services receive them.
“We can’t allow what happened in Parkland and in Texas to become the new normal in this country,” Nelson said on the Senate floor Monday. “We have to do more to protect our kids in school and ensure that any student who needs mental health services is able to get them.”
If approved, the legislation would require the U.S. Department of Education to conduct a study to determine which areas of the country have a shortage of school mental health professionals. It would also provide federal education grants to colleges and universities that partner with low-income school districts to train school counselors, social workers, psychologists and other mental health professionals in the underserved school districts that need them the most.
And finally, to encourage metal health professionals to work in these school districts, Nelson’s bill would establish a federal student loan forgiveness program for mental health professionals who work at least five years in a low-income school district.
Nelson says he started working on the measure in the wake of the Parkland tragedy but last week’s shooting at a high school in Santa Fe, Texas created a new sense of urgency in getting it approved.
The lack of mental health professionals at schools in Florida was one of several issues raised in the wake of the tragic shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year. In response to the tragedy, the Florida Legislature approved $69 million to provide additional mental health resources in schools in Florida.
Some mental health professionals have said the funding approved by the Legislature is a good first step, but still not enough. They also say even more will be needed to hire mental health professionals in areas that have been traditionally hard to staff, such as rural and low-income school districts.
To help address those issues, among others, Nelson’s legislation would create federal-grant funding and student-loan forgiveness opportunities specifically for the counselors and higher-education programs that work to provide services in the districts that need them the most.
The legislation is cosponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
Text of the bill is available here.