DCPS Faces Disparities in Mental Health Services for Students

Wilson High School in Ward 3. Photo from WikimediaCommons

By: Evangeline Lacroix

One man is petitioning his bosses, Mayor Bowser and City council for fairer treatment of mental health programs within DCPS. Nathan Luecking, a delegate for the union that represents School Mental Health Program workers in D.C. is a licensed clinician. He works at a South East D.C. Public School (DCPS) High school as a part of the Department of Behavioral Health’s (DBH) School Mental Health Program (SMHP). A voluntary supplementary program that installs more trained mental health providers in schools that have a large need for services.

According to Luecking, without publically consulting staff, schools or community members, DBH’s Director  Dr. Tanya Royster made an internal shift in how the program will operate. Programming will go from 70 schools that have accepted the program into their daily operations to serving every school within DCPS as a consultant to staff that already exist in schools.

This would remove all clinical services provided by the SMHP, and redistribute them around several schools in a part- time capacity. Employees such as Luecking will instead be delivering mental health presentations to students most likely to have had no prior contact or relationship with SMHP.

“It is extremely hard to justify pulling highly trained clinical therapists from our most vulnerable students especially during times of rising violence and repeated exposure to trauma,” Luecking said. “Unfortunately, Dr. Royster’s proposal will do just that.”


Luecking says this push will make services to students impersonal and distant. Overall he believes it will be a disservice to the students he provides services to.

“We will serve each school only for small amounts of time,” Luecking said. “While Dr. Royster has made the argument that she will be staffing all DC schools with a mental-health clinician, she will be doing so in a very limited, watered-down capacity that looks much better on paper than in actual service to our children with whom the program has been working with successfully for the past 17 years.”

When reached out to comment on the situation, both DCPS and DBH declined to comment.

According to a 2012 study by D.C. Action for Children, a local advocacy group for DCPS students,  there is a disparity between how each ward receives mental health services. While D.C. keeps no record on how many students are affected by mental health issues, the study suggests, that based on national models produced by the National Comorbidity Survey, there are projected to be between 7,300 to 9,200 children between 13 and 18 affected by mental illness in D.C.

The study goes on to say that low-income students, students who are on Medicaid, are the least likely to get the mental health treatment.

In D.C. these students are most likely to populate Ward 7 and Ward 8, the two poorest Wards in the District.

In a 2009 study from D.C.’s Department of Mental Health, wards 7 and 8 have historical shortages of private clinical workers such as psychologists, social workers, and registered nurses. This has lead to 88 percent of children on Medicaid who have diagnosed mental problems do not receive proper treatment.

D.C. Action for children’s study relates this lack of mental health providers to providers in public schools as well. Wards 7 and 8 are more likely to have staffing shortages than any other wards. According to the study, in 2012 Ward 8 has eight providers for 20,000 students. Ward 3 has more than 20 providers for 10,000 students.


DCPS currently employs 169 school-based social workers, and nine social workers in the central office. On top of this, DCPS employs 75 school-based psychologists and 16 psychologists in the central office, according to DCPS’ filing for the 2015 performance oversight hearings. These documents show budget information for each local government department when budgets are up for review every spring. 

According to the same documents,  there are staffing gaps, shortages of positions,  for social workers at two elementary schools, two middle schools, two high schools and the Incarcerated Youth Program. There staffing gaps for staff psychologists at eight elementary schools, one middle school, one special education center and the Incarcerated Youth Program. There are also large staffing gaps for school counselors, occupational therapist and speech/language pathologists across DCPS. A majority of these gaps are in schools that are in wards 7 and 8. 

While these staffing gaps still exist, D.C. is consistently spending more money on special education and mental health service providers within DCPS than in past years. 

According to the 2017 proposed DC Budget from Mayor Bowser, $1.3 five million, or 17 percent of the total budget allocated to DCPS, has been allocated to special education. In the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, $99 million were spent on special education.

According to the 2016 DCPS budget, from 2013 to 2016, 148 additional special education teachers had been hired and 66 social-emotional support staff had been hired.

Where these staffing gaps exist, the DBH’s School Mental Health Program currently inserts approximately 65 full-time clinicians across 70 different  DCPS schools. Most schools are low-income schools in wards 7 and 8 where the program can be subsidized by Medicaid. If the shift is to happen in the fall, the students that receive personalized care now from SMHP employees will no longer receive this full-time care. 


How DCPS Compares to the DMV

In Arlington, near the Pentagon, the local public elementary school is a transitory place. For Lilie Lansman, a third-grade teacher her classroom of about 25 students has consistently fluctuated between  20 and 25 students throughout the year.

“Most of my kids are constantly moving around so you have to be stable, and consistent,” Lansman said. “Home in a way.”

One of Lansman’s most challenging moments has been a student she has from Istanbul. The girl was recently evacuated from her home because her father is American worker during the recent coup. She was traumatized.  She didn’t enter Lansman’s classroom for almost a week, crying every morning.

Lansman’s mental health training provided by the school, as well as the school’s facilities were quintessential in order make her transition safe.

“Without the training and the counselors surrounding this girl, I’m not sure I could have handled it on my own,” Lansman said. “We got her into friendship and anxiety groups. We had a system of support to meet her at the front door every day. We discussed a buddy system to develop her self-esteem. It was tough. But we did.”

Lansman says on top of teacher training throughout the year, school counselors have monthly small group meetings in classrooms to discuss topics like anxiety, bullying and time-management with students.

“I know that I love our counselors and the team,” Lansman said. “They do everything they can for my kids and at the end of the day that is the most important thing to me.” 

Stephanie Hespe, a part-time counselor at a public elementary school in Montgomery County, has a caseload of half her school, 500 kids. On a regular basis, she conducts check-ins with 12 students weekly and four students daily. She also sees several students on a bi-weekly schedule. She also conducts group sessions.

Outside of individual counseling, Hespe also facilitates classroom guidance lessons every other month. In these sessions, a small group of students is lectured on topics ranging from social skills to changing families, anxiety, friendship building, and self-esteem etc.

“At my school, we have a lot of students with anxiety,” Hespe, 25, said. “Some have outside counselors, but still need support at school and some are not seeing an outside counselor for a variety of reasons. [For Example] it doesn’t rise to that level of severity, parents are unable to afford take students, parents do not see the issue, or accept the issue.”

While wealth and agency parents have to purchase private mental health services for their children play a role in how public schools receive school-based mental health providers, it is not the end all be all to what dictates how much aid a school receives.

According to Luecking, counties like Montgomery County often times require different levels of service because of the wealth and agency parents have to provide private help for their children.

“Anecdotally, I know schools in North West and Montgomery County don’t have as many mental health services because everything goes through private insurance or out of pocket up there, and there is not a demand really for school-based mental health services like Southeast and Southwest DC,” Luecking said.

Luecking said that in Ward 3, the wealthiest ward in D.C., and an economically similar Ward to Montgomery County, only one school, Wilson High School has opted into DBH’s program. This is because other schools in the ward have too little a need for mental health services in their schools to justify the addition of a supplementary program to be relevant.

Hespe says that while many families in Montgomery county have this agency, there is still a large number of students that need school-based aid. Many schools rely on mental health services for students.

“Montgomery County has a big reputation for being a rich country with families who have access to a lot of services,” Hespe said. “This is true in some cases, but definitely not all. Montgomery County is huge and has an extremely diverse population, minorities are the majority in Montgomery County.”

Hespe says her school, while it is mainly comprised of middle and upper middle-class families, about 15 percent of the population receive free and reduced meals, a marker of low-income households. She says that public schools in Montgomery County range from a relatively low number of low-income students to schools that are majority low-income students.

“Now, is that as severe as a school in Anacostia? No, but if you think of schools in Northwest DC they probably have a very similar population to my school,” Hespe said. “My school is so massive that we really need to collaborate/ help each other out to make sure all the students are being served. I try to be very transparent with the teachers and follow through with requests: things I say I will do. Now do all the teachers love me? Definitely not, but I think overall we have a mutual respect for each other.”

For Hespe, mental health services in schools are incredibly important to the services associated with child development and public schools.

“At the most basic level if students have a mental-health concern that goes untreated there is no way they are available for learning, they fall further and further behind, and are hit like double jeopardy,” Hespe said. “Schools are a great place to intervene because every child in our country has to go to school. If we had more mental health services for students within our schools more students will have their needs met so they can be successful.”



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