July 29, 2011

As D.C. residents who believe that every child in the city deserves a high-quality public education, we were horrified by last year’s shootings on South Capitol Street in Southeast, which left four teenagers dead. We applaud the compassion and commitment of D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who subsequently co-authored the South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act to address the chronic underinvestment in mental health support for D.C. youth.

The shooting was the deadliest in the District in two decades. This tragic event led many to finally focus on youth mental health in the District. Some 72 percent of D.C. adolescents enrolled in Medicaid suffer from depression but are not being properly treated, a recent Rand Corp. report found. Despite such unmet needs, the District spends only $13 million annually on community-based mental health treatment for children. This compares to $72 million in Vermont, which has a similar-size population.

We support the D.C. Council’s call for greater public investment in youth mental health services, earlier intervention and stronger engagement with families. We cannot, however, support Catania’s bill as written. Why? Because at a time when public funding for all D.C. public schools is being cut, this bill would require teachers to train and work as mental health professionals, requiring them to perform mental health screenings and assessments and to make referrals for services.

We understand the real need for investment in mental health services for at-risk youths. That is why the charter school that one of us founded provides qualified, professional mental health counselors at each of its campuses.

But teachers should not be doing this work. Teachers in the city’s charter schools already work an extended school day, week and year, including before- and after-school and summer educational programs. In a school system that for so long has failed our children, the District’s charters need that time to get students to grade level and into college. This bill seriously underestimates the time and money required to train every D.C. teacher to act as a qualified and competent mental health professional.

Highly skilled teachers in the city’s chartered public schools often make the difference between students heading to college and careers or becoming ensnared in an all-too-familiar cycle of tragically wasted potential. The District’s resources would be better employed ensuring that funding is available for traditional public and public charter schools to hire their own mental health professionals on each campus.

The Catania bill also underestimates the resources required to reach those children who are most at risk of mental illness. Truant children who rarely, if ever, are in school generally have the most acute — and undiagnosed — mental health needs. They cannot be identified, screened and assessed in school because they are not there. And parents who refuse consent for their child to be screened may have at-risk children.

The South Capitol Street shootings remind us that youths who have slipped through the cracks of the system pose the greatest challenge. Those responsible for the shootings were supposed to be supervised by the District’s Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services, but they had absconded.

The District needs more mental health investment to stop youths from making catastrophic choices that cast a shadow for a lifetime. But this investment should not come at the price of their education or be administered by nonprofessionals. Our children are too precious to allow either to happen.

Donald L. Hense is founder and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School. Ramona H. Edelin is executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools.