Murphy backpedals on changes in school MH efforts

A popular, decades-old mental health counseling program will continue operating in 90 New Jersey school districts, at least temporarily, under a compromise that will allow Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to move forward with a separate plan to create a statewide network of treatment services off campus.

It’s a victory for fierce supporters of the existing School-Based Youth Services — including high school graduates, educators, and state lawmakers — who argued the programs have provided a safe haven for troubled kids.

Murphy and state Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer announced late Wednesday they are seeking bids from mental health providers to create the new program, the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Network, in time for the 2023-24 academic year.

The governor’s office also said “in order to minimize disruption to students already receiving services,” the administration will also “maintain” funding for the School-Based Youth Services program funding in Murphy’s upcoming state budget proposal for the fiscal year 2024, which is slated to take effect July 1.

The state will expect more from the administrators of the existing programs, however. By July 1, they must follow new “standardized reporting requirements, monitoring requirements, and program expectations,” the announcement said.

“As a firm believer in the importance of addressing the mental health needs of our youth, I understand just how essential it is to provide young people with the support they need during these challenging times,” Murphy said in a statement Wednesday. “In connection with the announcement and launch of the groundbreaking NJ4S program, my Administration has listened to educators, students, community members and other interested parties about this proposal and appreciate the input we have received.”

Murphy said during a television appearance Tuesday evening on News 12 New Jersey that he intended to continue funding the School-Based Youth Services program for “at least a period of time.” But it’s not clear yet how long the reprieve will last. The governor committed to re-upping the $30 million they cost in the upcoming state budget.

Last month, Norbut Beyer announced a statewide plan to create the Student Support Network, which would host school assemblies, workshops, mentoring programs, and off-site counseling for students most in need of help.

Murphy suggested Tuesday he believes the new plan is more comprehensive.

“We have stepped back and said those programs are great, but we felt we needed to cast a wider net,” Murphy said. “Because everybody’s mental health has been impacted by this pandemic.”

He added that “we’re going to be very comfortable funding the programs that exist already, but we’re also gonna implement that hub-and-spoke notion to cast that wider net.”
Get politics news like this right to your inbox with the N.J. Politics newsletter. Add your email below and hit "subscribe"

To help pay for the new network, Norbut Beyer planned to use the $30 million that has operated the school-based programs in 90 districts, founded by Gov. Tom Kean’s administration in 1988. The existing programs would have closed by the end of the current school year in June, under her plan.

The commissioner also proposed cutting its funding two years ago as a cost-cutting maneuver when the state’s finances appeared to be in a precarious state because of the pandemic.

Supporters successfully fought to save the program in 2020, and now seem to have prevailed again.

State Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, released a statement late Tuesday thanking Murphy for finding a compromise.

“I am pleased to see that state funding for school-based youth services will continue in the 90 districts that have them,” Gopal said. “These services are vital and need to continue so there is no lapse in any services. Here in Monmouth County, The Source in Red Bank has been a model statewide for true mental health services.”

“At the same time, we should continue to pursue a statewide system so every child in the state has access to quality mental health services,” the lawmaker added. “The two can absolutely happen at the same time and I thank the Governor’s office for going in this direction.”

“National research shows that one in five teenagers lives with severe mental health issues and that youth suicide rates continue to rise. Making quality behavioral health care accessible to all of our students with mental health needs must be given the greatest priority.”

Mary Pat Angelini, CEO of Preferred Behavioral Healthcare Group, also thanked the governor for listening “to the overwhelming chorus of voices of parents, educators, providers, and students to leave these critical counseling services in place.”

“We encourage the Administration to build on the success of the existing School Based Youth Services programs, which has provided immediate and accessible care in schools for over three decades,” she said.

The existing school-based program serves only 25,000 to 30,000 students, about 2% of the entire 1.3 million public school population, according to the Department of Children and Families.

The statewide “hub and spoke” model Norbut Beyer envisioned would consist of 15 hubs, each of which will serve one or more counties. Each hub will receive a budget of about $3.2 million to employ a director, an assistant director, support staff and mental health clinicians, according to the department. A panel of students, parents, school personnel, community leaders and representatives from social service would advise the hub on the services needed, the proposal said.

The hubs would provide three tiers or levels of intervention: one that would host school assemblies and workshops to promote mental well-being and discourage disruptive behaviors like bullying; one that would offer mentoring or small group sessions for students identified as “at risk” for behavioral or mental health issues; and one that connect students in need of evaluation and referral to counseling outside the school.

With an overall price tag of about $48 million, Norbut Beyer said in October, the network would be ready for the start of the 2023-24 school year.

“We’re excited about the healing potential of NJ4S, offering statewide access to mental and emotional wellness services to all students,” Norbut Beyer said in a statement.