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Colorado legislation prioritizes mental health in schools

Prioritizing mental health in schools

A new bill in the Colorado legislature would expand teacher training in trauma-informed approaches that support children in need.

February 4, 2020

By Matt Watson

The first Senate bill proposed for the 72nd Colorado General Assembly shows the critical importance of addressing youth mental health in the state in 2020.

It also aligns with a top priority for Metropolitan State University of Denver’s School of Education: integrating trauma-informed practices into every aspect of teacher education.

As introduced by Sen. Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), SB20-001 would ask the state to spend $1 million to fund behavioral-health training for kindergarten through 12th-grade educators.

RELATED: Teachers learn the language of trauma

Focusing on behavioral and mental health in schools is a step in the right direction, said Elizabeth Hinde, dean of MSU Denver’s School of Education.

“It’s time for the mental-health concerns in kindergarten through 12th-grade children that teachers face every day to be brought to the fore,” she said.

Fields serves as vice chair of the legislature’s interim school-safety committee, which spent last summer planning how to best address the prevalence of trauma experienced by schoolchildren. Offering behavioral-health training to all K-12 educators in the state is a worthwhile investment, she said.

Trauma-informed approaches to improving school climate and culture are among the evidence-based practices that will be prioritized by the proposed program. MSU Denver’s School of Education is already advancing such approaches: The University launched workshops on trauma-informed practices in fall 2018 and hired Anna Joseph to lead integration of the practices into the School of Education’s curriculum this past fall. More than 250 students, faculty, staff and local teachers have already participated in the workshops.

“What Sen. Fields is doing (with SB20-001) and the work we’re doing are distinct, but they obviously support each other,” Joseph said.

RELATED: Helping students experiencing trauma requires trauma-informed practices in the classroom

While the bill is a good first step, it’s critical that the behavioral-health training it funds does not become an add-on to teachers’ already-packed schedules, Hinde said.

“Training in addressing behavioral- and mental-health needs of children can be integrated into the work and training that the teachers already receive,” she said.

The legislature’s interim school-safety committee heard similar concerns when its members wrote the bill, Fields said. It does not require schools and districts to send personnel for training but allows the Colorado Department of Education to contract with local education providers to deliver programs.

RELATED: Here's how teachers are dealing with the emotional toll of helping students experiencing trauma

“Teachers are asking for this kind of training because they want to be able to recognize the signs. It would just be heartbreaking to know that something happened to a child under your watch and you did nothing about it,” Fields said.

The bill was the first proposed in the Senate in 2020, an intentional move meant to signal its importance, Fields said. In 2019, the body’s first bill addressed the opioid crisis, while its first proposal of 2018 funded transportation infrastructure. Both pieces of legislation passed the General Assembly, and both were signed into law.

We believe that far too many of our young people are dealing with a behavioral crisis,” Fields said. “We want to make sure that we put the appropriate emphasis on it.”

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