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Many schools struggle to meet the behavioral health needs of their students for a number of reasons. A 2003 survey of seven school-based mental health care sites in Texas found that counselors face difficulties in providing appropriate levels of mental health services to students; teachers lack experience in recognizing early signs of mental health issues and oftentimes cannot identify available services in the community; and financial constraints keep many schools from adequately meeting the needs of students with mental health problems who are not eligible for services under federal law.

In order to help school districts better address these issues, in April 2012, Mental Health America of Greater Houston (MHA) launched the Harris County School Behavioral Health Initiative (SBHI), a community-wide collaborative aimed at ensuring students are identified early and able to receive needed services. The initiative convened school district personnel, behavioral health providers, child-serving and education-related agencies, and parents to develop recommendations to improve the prevention, identification, and treatment of behavioral health issues among students.

At the first meeting, stakeholders from more than 40 local organizations committed to a year-long workgroup experience culminating in 37 consensus recommendations.  Workgroup participants included personnel from ten school districts representing over 500,000 public school students; the Harris County Department of Education; behavioral health providers such as Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County (now known as The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD) and DePelchin Children’s Center; child-serving agencies and advocacy organizations such as the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department and Children at Risk.

Also participating were statewide advocates such as Texans Care for Children and Disability Rights Texas; and consumer and family organizations such as NAMI Houston and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Houston.

At the second meeting of the SBHI, workgroup participants agreed to participate in specific committees to address the behavioral health needs of students. The committees were Prevention, Identification/Evaluation, and Intervention/Treatment. The committees met several times throughout the process to determine current system gaps and develop recommendations on how those gaps can be bridged.

Simultaneous with the work of the committees, several other activities took place, including the:

  • Review of state and federal laws that govern the identification and treatment of students with behavioral health issues, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, as well as relevant state regulations;
  • Creation of system “maps” of four school districts to determine their policies related to prevention, identification and treatment of mental health and/or substance abuse issues;
  • Examination of national evidence-based and promising school behavioral health programs. These included best practices related to prevention, identification, and intervention;
  • Completion of 32 individual interviews with key community members to obtain their views of how school behavioral health processes currently are working and ways in which they can be improved;
  • Execution of site visits to locations that have been recognized statewide or nationally for innovative and best practice-based school mental health initiatives. The sites included:
  • Collection of data from the 20 main Harris County school districts related to special education categorization, racial patterns, and disciplinary placements.

Initial recommendations were developed through each of the preceding activities and presented to the full workgroup at a half-day retreat in October 2012. By the conclusion of the retreat, the workgroup members had come to consensus on 30 recommendations and recommended an additional 14 for further review. At the final retreat, consensus had been reached on a total of 37 recommendations, and a report was released February 2013.

Between 2013 and early 2016, the School Behavioral Health Initiative, composed of area school districts, community organizations and agencies, legislative representatives, parents, and advocates, worked toward system or district-wide implementation of the 37 recommendations.  By March, 2016, all 7 of the legislative recommendations were fully or partially implemented, and 20 of the 21 school district recommendations were being implemented district-wide by at least one area school or charter school district.  In total, 34 of the 37 recommendations had been realized.

In spring 2016, the Houston Endowment Inc. awarded Mental Health America (MHA) of Greater Houston a $2,070,000 three-year grant to create The Center for School Behavioral Health (the Center). The Center was created as a corollary of the results-driven work implemented during the last three school years by the Harris County School Behavioral Health Initiative.

Read the full report here.

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