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After outcry, Murphy halts plan to eliminate popular NJ school-based mental health programs

After outcry, Murphy halts plan to eliminate popular NJ school-based mental health programs
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A popular, decades-old mental health counseling program will continue operating in 90 New Jersey school districts under a compromise that will allow Gov. Phil Murphy‘s administration to go forward with a separate plan to create a statewide network of treatment services off campus.

It’s a victory for fierce supporters of the 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 has yet to formally announce the deal but suggested it was coming during a television appearance Tuesday evening.

“We have stepped back and said those programs are great, but we felt we needed to cast a wider net. Because everybody’s mental health has been impacted by this pandemic,” Murphy said on News 12 New Jersey.

He added that “folks should expect” an announcement that the state will have both programs “at least for a period of time.”

“We’re going to be very comfortable funding the programs that already exist, but we’re also gonna implement that hub-and-spoke notion to cast that wider net,” the governor said.

Last month, state Children and Families Commissioner Christine Norbut Beyer announced a statewide plan called the New Jersey Statewide Student Support Network that would host school assemblies, workshops, mentoring programs, and off-site counseling for students most in need of help.

To help pay for the new network, Norbut Beyer planned to use the $30 million that has operated the School-Based Youth Services programs in 90 districts, founded by Gov. Thomas H. Kean’s administration in 1988. The existing programs would close 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.

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“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 statewide model 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.”

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.

It’s not clear when the statewide network would be launched. With an overall price tag of about $48 million, Norbut Beyer said in October, the network would be operating at the start of the 2023-24 school year.

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Susan K.Livio may be reached at slivio@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @SusanKLivio.

Brent Johnson may be reached at bjohnson@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him at @johnsb01.

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