A recent Ramapo-Indian Hills School Board meeting saw a lengthy debate over the implementation and extent of mental health services in the school district, revealing a contentious divide among board members, staff, and community members.
Board members discussed their new strategic plan, which includes four overarching goals: teaching and learning, culture and climate, reimagining time, and social-emotional support and wellbeing for students. These goals were developed based on community feedback collected over the past 14-16 months through focus groups and surveys. However, the allocation of resources and attention towards student mental health was a hotly contested issue throughout the meeting.
The district proposed continuing its years-long partnership with the Thrive Program and expanding it to employ a third counselor. It also proposed redirecting funds currently going to Care Plus to Care Solace. The move was intended to be budget-neutral and aimed to address the students’ needs both in and out of the classroom.
However, criticism was rampant over the school district’s involvement in mental health issues and they ultimately did not pass. One board member argued that the school’s primary focus should be academic education: “We are a school district and we need to stay focused on our priority here, which is that the purpose of our schools is to educate our children.” This sentiment was echoed by some parents at the meeting.
On the contrary, several board members and residents emphasized the importance of holistic support, arguing that students might turn to school staff in times of crisis. “There is an epidemic of depression amongst high school students… They learn better when they’re mentally prepared,” said one board member. Another added, “There’s no such thing as too much mental health… you can only teach someone if they’re mentally healthy.”
A resident and special education teacher, Michelle Clancy, defended the mental health services and their positive impact, particularly through the Thrive program. However, Audrey Souders raised concerns about privacy and potential HIPAA violations, questioning if information from these services is reported back to the school and if students’ privacy is ensured. She also questioned the use of grant and ESSER fund money and what happens when these funds run out.
Separately, concerns were voiced over a marked increase in legal costs, which totaled $271,000 for the year, a rise of 137%. The decision of board members to prioritize such expenditure while debating over the allocation of funds for mental health services drew criticism from community member Kathy Schwartz, who said, “I’m shocked that you think it’s okay to spend money on that… and you don’t think it’s okay to spend money on the mental health of our students.”
In a passionate address, Superintendent Dr. Rui Dionisio stressed the importance of these initiatives, expressing disappointment at the non-passage of resolutions E7, E8, and E11, related to mental health professional partnerships, the continuity of a 10-year counseling program, and training initiatives. “I cannot underscore enough as to how significantly concerned I am as your superintendent of schools that we’re in this situation,” said Dr. Dionisio.