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Bill focusing on mental health supports for kids clears Senate

Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, was one of several senators to speak in favor of a bill that would expand mental health services in schools.
Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor, was one of several senators to speak in favor of a bill that would expand mental health services in schools.

The last of three robust bills aiming to broaden services and resources for children’s mental health cleared its initial hurdle Thursday, gathering wide support in the Senate.

Senate Bill 1, which would bolster mental health programs in schools, increase wages for child care workers and create a minority teacher scholarship fund, among other priorities, passed the Senate with a vote of 33 to 2. Republican Senators Rob Sampson of Wolcott and Ryan Fazio of Greenwich were the only dissenters.

Fazio had introduced an amendment to the bill that would have eliminated various teacher certification fees. The amendment failed after Democratic senators said revenue loss from removal of the fees was not included in the state budget proposal.

“We could easily make child care 20% or 30% less expensive this year with simple improvements to regulations … We could easily improve teacher recruitment by eliminating their $825 of certification fees,” Fazio said in a statement after the debate. “While there are some parts of SB 1 that I support … I fear that SB1 represents the same old strategy that continues to fail regular families and make CT unaffordable. I will continue to work with my colleagues for real solutions.”

Sampson was not immediately available for comment.

Two other sweeping mental health bills targeting services for children made it through their initial chamber recently: House Bill 5001, which features everything from license reciprocity for out-of-state providers to a grant program for local school boards to hire additional mental health workers, passed the House unanimously on Wednesday, and Senate Bill 2, which focuses on early childhood services, won adoption in the Senate last week.

“This is not an end, but this is a significant step forward,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said during Thursday’s debate on Senate Bill 1. “If I were going to explain this bill, I would just say, ‘Wow, wow, wow.’ There are a lot of good things in here that should make the people of the state of Connecticut very proud that we have come together with this legislation after talking about some of these issues for such a long time.”

The measure would set aside $10 million for need-based grants to expand services at school-based health centers. It also would create a grant program to help boards of education hire and retain social workers, nurses, psychologists and counselors in schools.

The bill would devote $70 million to salary enhancement grants for child care and early childhood education workers and increase the number of infant and toddler slots in child development centers across the state, to 2,800 spaces, up from 1,500.

Under the proposal, school boards would be provided with information on how to acquire no-cost opioid antagonists like Narcan, and school employees would be trained on proper usage and handling. The measure would allow pharmacists and prescribing providers to dispense Narcan to school boards, and it requires schools to designate one employee to administer the medication in the event that a school nurse is unavailable.

The bill also directs the state Department of Education to devise strategies for streamlining and improving pathways to teacher certification, and it would create a task force to address teacher shortage and retention. One million dollars would be set aside for a new minority teacher candidate scholarship program.

The proposal also would launch a task force to help combat ableism, the discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities, in school settings.

“We said at the outset of this session that children’s mental health was an issue that everyone saw needed to be addressed. And we have been doing that in various fashions,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said. “The fact is, our children are 100% of Connecticut’s future. They need services. We’ve identified that, and bills like this deliver those much-needed services.”

Sen. Doug McCrory, D-Hartford, a key backer of the proposal, called the measure “one of the most important pieces of legislation” that would be voted on this year.

“I’ve heard from parents, young people and educators across our state about how the pandemic has left many young people struggling with trauma and mental anguish the last couple of years,” he said. “We must act to ramp up the availability of mental health support services and address the children’s mental health crisis.”

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, a New Haven Democrat, said the bill is an acknowledgement of the severity of the problem.

“We have recognized that there is a crisis among very young children in our state that has been exacerbated by the pandemic,” he said. “There are so many young children whose nurturing and preparation for school is inadequate, and the inadequacy is not fully documented until they enroll in kindergarten and are woefully unprepared.

“This bill is a commitment to take action against that, and to recognize issues related to distress and mental health challenges. … School will not be a place of failure or a place of humiliation … but a place where [children’s] natural creativity and their intelligence and capacity to grow and learn will be supported and sustained.”

The measure now heads to the House for a final vote.

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