After a backlash from educators and mental health advocates, New Jersey has abandoned — for now — a controversial plan to eliminate school-based youth services programs that provide counseling to thousands of students in 63 districts, including Camden.
However, the state Department of Children and Families announced Wednesday that it will still move forward with a plan to offer additional counseling and other services through newly established regional centers. It said school programs in 86 schools would be preserved for at least one more year until 2024.
School officials and lawmakers who urged the state to reconsider the proposal, known as the NJ Statewide Student Support Services or NJ4S network, called the decision a partial victory. Many feared the school programs would be eliminated at the end of the 2022-23 school year.
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“This is a step in the right direction,” Millville Schools Principal Tony Trognione said Thursday. “But the jury is still out. Details are coming out very slowly.”
In the release, the state said the decision came after weeks of comments from the public and stakeholders. It said maintaining existing school programs would minimize disruption to students already receiving services.
In addition to Millville and Camden’s Eastide High and Camden High, other South Jersey schools that currently have school youth services include Willingboro High School, Pemberton Township High School, Clayton Middle School, Gloucester County Institute of Technology in Deptford, Bridgeton High School and Penns High School Grove.
The state said it will release a request for proposals, or RFP, in the coming weeks for the new program, which will take a more regional approach to mental health services. The state wants to establish centers in the NJ4S network, near the state’s 15 judicial districts, by June 30, 2023. There will be a “hub and spoke” model, including prevention specialists and mental health counselors.
“As a firm believer in the importance of meeting the mental health needs of our youth, I understand how important it is to provide young people with the support they need during these challenging times,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement.
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At a time when youth mental health has been declared a crisis, the state said the regional approach will allow it to reach all 1.4 million students in New Jersey’s public schools. The services will be provided to students in schools and trusted sites such as libraries and community centers.
The school’s current youth services program, started in 1988, serves 25,000 to 30,000 students a year and costs about $32 million, according to the state. But there are about 2,400 New Jersey schools that don’t have youth school services in their buildings, and the state said it can’t afford to implement them.
Trognone and others say conveniently located programs like LINK, based at Millville High School, have provided a safe environment where students can seek help from counselors they feel comfortable with. His district has had the program for 17 years.
In addition to mental health services, the programs provide health and wellness services for students and their families, assistance with substance abuse problems, job search initiatives and recreational offerings. School officials say students can get real-time help with intervention that will likely allow them to stay in school.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle praised the school programs and opposed changing them. School psychologists said the programs are the most effective and timely way to reach students, especially those in underserved communities.
In a joint statement, the Legislative Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus applauded Murphy’s decision to expand the programs. It was unclear what would happen after 2024. Many districts said they could not afford to finance them without state aid.
“It was alarming to learn of the potential elimination of life-saving programs… [that] provide students with safe spaces; places where they feel comfortable and have built trusting relationships,” the groups said.