Chester County Legislative Delegation and Commissioners Meet with School Superintendents to Discuss Mental Health Needs of Children and Youth
Downingtown, PA - Chester County’s school superintendents shared their concerns regarding the increased demand for mental health services for students with state and county elected officials at a special information session held at the Chester County Intermediate Unit on February 2, 2022.
Organized by Pennsylvania State Representative Christina Sappey and CCIU Executive Director Dr. George F. Fiore, the meeting was the culmination of work done by a smaller group formed early last summer to address youth mental health and suicide prevention needs in Chester County. This smaller work group consisted of county officials, school superintendents and staff and CCIU. They inventoried current programming and resources and identified gaps in service.
The goal of this larger meeting was to bring both county and state officials together to hear directly from the superintendents. The presentation made by superintendents provided an overview of the current situation and a plan to significantly improve services and meet students’ needs.
“We all share the public’s urgent concern for the mental health and safety of our kids, and for how this is landing on our schools,” said Representative Sappey. “Accurately addressing the behavioral health needs of our students is critical to saving lives. Today we have been given a road map and I am hopeful that with bi-partisan support we can overcome these challenges.”
Providing opening remarks, Dr. George F. Fiore, executive director of the Chester County Intermediate Unit, agreed with Sappey, and stressed that the schools are not looking for funding, but rather long-term solutions and partnerships with community and mental health professionals, and state and county officials.
“What you will hear today is an overview of the problem that we are facing in our schools,” said Fiore, “The stress it is placing on our students and our school staff, how we are providing services to students now, and an outline of the continuum of care our students need and deserve.”
Fiore then introduced superintendents from Unionville Chadds Ford, West Chester Area, Avon Grove, Downingtown Area and Phoenixville Area Districts. Each of the speakers outlined the significant issues their schools are facing in providing mental health services to students and proposed solutions, including addressing the mental health care professional shortage, embedding crisis counselors in schools, opening crisis care centers, and strengthening community partnerships.
“These are issues that have been years in the making,” said Fiore, and “It is going to take resources and commitment, but we owe it to our students to work together and do what needs to be done for this generation of students and for the next.”
Dr. John Sanville, superintendent of the Unionville Chadds Ford School District, spoke first regarding the critical shortage of mental health professionals. Dr. Sanville referenced a report co-sponsored by Representative Kristine Howard in 2020 that studied the mental health professional shortage. The report, Pennsylvania Mental Health Care Workforce Shortage: Challenges and Solutions, commissioned by the general assembly in 2020, provided recommendations to ease the situation.
According to Sanville, Pennsylvania has 422 child psychiatrists for its 2.7 million children and youth. Among the recommendations, Dr. Sanville asked to implement the findings of the 2020 report, in addition to considering loan forgiveness programs, and scholarships to college students enrolled in mental health professional programs.
“I am proud to have been a cosponsor of HR193, which resulted in the Joint State Government Commission conducting a study finding many areas in which the access to mental health care could be improved in our Commonwealth,” said Representative Kristine Howard. “In the time since, I have sought to remedy some of those care shortfalls with two new bills that would create programs to ensure adequate staffing for behavioral health facilities and expand the pool of Clinical Social Workers that can provide therapeutic services on an outpatient basis, HB2091 and HB1926. I intend to continue to work to ensure all Pennsylvanians have access to the care they need.
Sanville was followed by Dr. M. Christopher Marchese from Avon Grove School District, and Dr. Robert Sokolowski from the West Chester Area School District, who provided the legislators with data showing the increased number of suicide risk and violent risk assessments among youth. The superintendents also provided information on the increasing number of referrals to schools from the Safe2Say tip line, which requires each school to respond to student safety tips no matter what time of day or night they are received.
“We (school staff) are often getting these tips at 4:00 a.m. in the morning,” said Sokolowski, “and then we are reaching out to agencies to find help.”
As a result, Dr. Marchese from Avon Grove School District proposed a system in which crisis counselors employed by the county were assigned to school districts to assist when students were experiencing a mental health crisis.
“It’s vital that we continue to prioritize mental health as both a matter of public health and a holistic approach to the education, development, and overall well-being of children, teens, and young people,” said Senator Carolyn Comitta. “While the pandemic has highlighted the impacts of mental health among our students, we must also consider the role of related factors, like exposure to social media, bullying, isolation, and substance abuse. I thank Rep. Sappey and the CCIU for helping advance this important discussion and continue to work to support investments in mental health services and legislation, like my Senate Bill 791, to increase access to counselors, psychologists, social workers, and nurses in our schools.”
Dr. Emilie Lonardi shared that with only one inpatient hospital to serve the entire county, they are sending students out of the county regularly. Students are waiting in emergency rooms for days waiting for beds in an inpatient mental health care center, and then going out of county. Lonardi proposed the now closed Jennersville and Brandywine Hospitals be turned into crisis care centers that offer a full level of continuum care.
In closing, Representative Danielle Friel Otten, summarized the need for these ongoing discussions.
“It’s important for us to be honest about what is happening with our kids, and what pressures and expectations we as a society are placing on them,” Otten said. “Even before the pandemic, our kids were being crushed under the pressures of social media, testing and academic performance, and being overscheduled to the extent that they have no time in their day to just be kids. For those of us who still remember a world without Facebook, Instagram, or smart phones, these are challenges that did not exist in our youth. Our schools, which are as central to our children’s lives as the family unit, need our help to create systems that are supportive of our youngest citizens so that our children can thrive. Speaking as both a legislator and a mom to two elementary-age children, there is nothing more important right now.”
The legislative briefing was attended by nearly all of the county’s legislative delegation, all three county commissioners, and all 12 Chester County superintendents, including:
Chester County Legislative Delegation
Rep. Christina Sappey, 158th Legislative District
Senator John Kane, 9th Senatorial District
Senator Tim Kearney, 26th Senatorial District
Senator Katie Muth, 44th Senatorial District
Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, 155th Legislative District
Rep. Tim Hennessey, 26th Legislative District
Rep. Diane Herrin, 156th Legislative District
Rep. Kristine Howard, 167th Legislative District
Rep. John Lawrence, 13th Legislative District
Rep. Melissa Shusterman, 157th Legislative District
Rep. Craig Williams, 160th Legislative District
Rep. Dan Williams, 74th Legislative District
Commissioner Marian Moskowitz, Chair
Commissioner Michelle Kichline
Commissioner Josh Maxwell
Patrick Bokovitz, Director, Chester County Department of Human Services
Tyler Arkatin, Chief of Staff, Rep. Sappey
Adam Cirucci, Communications Director, Senator Comitta
Cameron Allen, Legislative Director, Senator Kearney
Nikki Whitlock, Chief of Staff, Senator Muth
Tyler Sciaudone, Chief of Staff, Rep. Shusterman
Traci Plunkett, Chief of Staff, Rep. Craig Williams
Abby Diebold, Communications Director, Senator Kane
Chester County Superintendents
Dr. M. Christopher Marchese, Avon Grove School District
Mr. Tomas Hanna, Coatesville Area School District
Dr. Emilie Lonardi, Downingtown Area School District
Dr. Daniel Goffredo, Great Valley School District
Dr. Dusty Blakey, Kennett Consolidated School District
Dr. Michele Orner, Octorara School District
Dr. Wilbur Stout, Owen J. Roberts School District
Mr. David Woods, Oxford Area School District
Dr. Alan Fegley, Phoenixville Area School District
Dr. Robert Sokolowski, West Chester Area School District
Dr. John Sanville, Unionville Chadds Ford School District
Dr. Richard Gusick, Tredyffrin/Eastown School District
Chester County Intermediate Unit
Dr. George F. Fiore, Executive Director