Preventing Crisis Among Our Youth

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When I last wrote in the Severna Park Voice, I shared some recommendations and concerns of the Kirwan Commission’s Blueprint for Education. I said that I have consistently supported innovative programs in schools that will challenge students, broaden their horizons and reach at-risk students to keep them engaged, safe and attending school through graduation.

During school, each teacher has so many challenges to teach the material, maintain order in the classroom, engage every student, help them find their passion and excel in classwork. We cannot expect them to also be clinicians or social workers or addiction specialists. If a student is distracted by a disruptive home life, drama from older siblings, or if their parents are not healthy or engaged, these factors can lead to behavioral problems, which are best dealt with early.

To that end, I have introduced House Bill 535, an innovative three-year pilot program for three to four middle or elementary schools in Anne Arundel County. This Preventive Measure Unit pilot program is designed to build on the success of the existing Crisis Response System (CRS) by adding a team member to each participating school for the full class day. The pilot seeks to help youth who are identified by behaviors early in their life to prevent them from developing into crisis situations. The program would assist with minimizing suspensions and juvenile citations while increasing the youth’s school attendance and performance.

Students may be identified by the school administration or school resource officers (SROs) as vulnerable or at-risk youth and are referred to a crisis intervention team (CIT). This team will consist of a licensed mental health professional (which may be an addiction specialist, psychologist or counselor, to name a few), a specially trained Anne Arundel County police officer and a care coordinator. The officers are trained in “Mental Health, First Aid and Crisis Intervention,” a 40-hour class. The CIT can assess, stabilize and connect youth and their families to community-based services and engage the individual and the family to build rapport and address a myriad of trauma-related issues in order to prevent crisis occurrence.

Why pilot the program even in an elementary school? After many conversations with teachers, clinicians and mental health professionals, it became clear to me that early intervention for struggling kids is key. For that reason, we amended the bill to include an elementary school. Reviewing the data from crisis center calls shows that the age of youth in crisis is getting younger. This is alarming to me.

We want to keep students in their schools and in their classrooms while they are getting needed help, rather than isolating and sending them out of the classroom only to return a day or two later without addressing the problem. And, if possible, we don’t want to remove students from their local school to another school that deals with behavioral and mental issues.

This program is color-blind. It will be coordinated by the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency’s Crisis Response System, the county police department and Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS).

I emphasize that this program is 100% voluntary for students and their families. Our goal is to prevent crisis through intervention and access to treatment.

It is encouraging to have bipartisan support for the bill among my Anne Arundel County colleagues. We have all been told stories by our constituents in which children or teachers have been bullied, threatened, cyberbullied, are victims of violence or cheated out of class time by disruptions. Therefore, most of our delegation has co-sponsored this bill to help students who are having behavioral, social or legal difficulties. This measure would connect students and their families to support services not just during school hours but after school as well and during the summer months.

I am about solutions, not rhetoric. Going to the root of the problem would serve us well for the future and can solve many of our societal and behavioral issues that have dominated our youth. If we are serious and want to make sure every Maryland student receives a world-class education, we need to help kids while they are young by connecting them with people who will listen and guide them to needed services. This is my hope for House Bill 535, which was heard in the House Ways and Means Committee on February 19. It is now awaiting further committee action.

As always, your thoughts are appreciated. I can be reached at 410-841-3551 or sid.saab@house.state.md.us.

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