On Tuesday, May 7, 2019, the Texas Senate Education Committee, chaired by Senator Larry Taylor (R), heard public testimony regarding the student, mental health-related legislation House Bill 18 (HB 18; Price et al.). HB18 requires teachers, counselors, and principals to receive professional development related to student mental health every year. This training is to focus on how mental health conditions, including grief and trauma, affect student learning and behavior and how “evidence-based, grief-informed, and trauma-informed strategies” support the academic success of students.
HB 18 will also require districts to utilize mental health-related educational programs and services and to implement mental health-related curricula. Additionally, mental health TEKS are to be embedded in grades 6-12 health classes. Another feature of HB 18 is that school districts will be required to publish in their student handbooks and on district websites the following:
the policies and procedures adopted to promote the physical and mental health of students;
the physical and mental health resources available at each campus;
contact information for the nearest providers of essential public health services; and
contact information for the nearest local mental health authority.
In light of the latest string of student mass shooting in Texas public schools, HB18 appears to be a bold move for Texas legislature to ensure that educators are better prepared to identify the warning signs of student mental illness and that school districts are equipped with curricula, programs, and services to address the needs of students suffering from mental health and trauma-related issues. It also appears as though Texas legislators want to use HB 18 to destigmatize mental health issues in the communities they serve.
It is not difficult to see how this bill would be received with open arms by most educators, and this was evident by the supportive comments shared during the Senate Education Committee meeting. At first glance, I agreed that the requirements brought forth by HB18, if implemented with fidelity, could impact the growing number of students suffering from mental health and trauma-related problems in Texas public schools in a positive way. However, after reviewing HB 18 in its entirety, I realized that there are a few potential issues with the legislation that could have some unintended, negative consequences for parents, the most salient of which is a potential student and parent backlash. Lines 21-27 on page 23 and lines 1-3 on page 24 of HB 18 indicate that a district employee or employee of a mental health service provider (physician or nonphysician) contracted with the district would have the authority to recommend that a child have a professional evaluation. While the bill does include language that requires written parental or guardian permission before evaluation or treatment actions are taken, it does not address steps the district will take if or when a parent declines the recommended health treatment. The likelihood of a parent refusing recommended mental health treatment for their child may be elevated especially since the recommendations can come from a staff member who is not a mental health professional. Will a parent who denies recommendations be reported to Child Protective Services, found liable in any way, or charged criminally for making an informed choice to refuse mental health treatment? In this case, will the students be excluded from participating in classroom or school activities? Will the student and parents be treated differently by the school or district?
The second issue with HB18 is related to the lack of parental oversight of the mental health programs and practice that their children will be subjected to in their schools. Lines 9-18 on page 27 of the bill state that the Texas Education Agency (TEA), in coordination with the Health and Human Services Commission and regional services centers, will provide to districts a list of best practice-based programs and research-based practices for the implementation of HB 18. However, it does not delineate the criteria that TEA will use for determining which services and programs will be provided to districts. Moreover, since there is no requirement for districts to inform parents of the programs and practices they choose, the door is left open for a wide variety of resources to be legitimized and introduced to students without parental input.
Hopefully, there will be clarifications coming soon to address these potential issues for parents. In the meantime, stay tuned as I highlight other aspects of the proposed legislation in future posts.