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.”



Senate Commerce Committee debates skill gap in bluecollar jobs

By: Evangeline Lacroix


Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in the Dirksen Senate Building

WASHINGTON — Advocates and industry experts in the manufacturing sector testified to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on the lack of qualified applicants for technical jobs for U.S manufacturing jobs, and their solutions to lessen this gap.

In his opening remarks, Chairman John Thune (R-SD) cited four key reasons for the decline in manufacturing jobs: a decline of technical education programs in public high-schools, an increase in the number of Baby /boomers approaching retirement, a negative perception of the manufacturing sector among some potential employees and an increased emphasis on four-year college enrollment.

One way people are trying to close this gap is by installing apprentice structures into their workforce by partnering with local community colleges and high-schools to get more kids into the door.

“Companies today are having a hard time finding qualified job applicants for technical positions. As many as 13 million U.S. jobs require technical or STEM skills, but not a 4-year college degree,” said ranking member Bill Nelson (D-FL). “On one hand, more Americans than ever are attending college – many graduating with crippling student loans. On the other, companies are desperate to fill well-paying technical jobs that require some training, but less than a bachelor’s degree. It is clear there is a mismatch between our education system and industry’s workforce needs.”

In the hearing, the Senators, advocates and industry leaders debated the best ways to close this skills gap — the gap between how many available jobs there are and the number of qualified applicants.

“Getting young people interested in working with their hands, and familiar with tools from a young age, is an important first step. A focus on technical education is part of the solution,” Thune said.

Longtime actor John Ratzenberger, an advocate for manufacturing jobs most famous for his role as Cliff Clavin on the CBS comedy “Cheers” and his Travel Chanel show “Made In America”, a show that spotlights manufacturing in the U.S, talked to committee members about the importance of skilled labor in the American workforce.

“Make no mistake — we are the peacekeepers of the world because of our manufacturing might,” Ratzenberger said. “Manufacturing is to America what spinach is to Popeye.”

Ratzenberger, who grew up in Connecticut in a community that he says prioritized unskilled labor — jobs that do not require college degrees, says manufacturing isn’t just important to him, it is a cornerstone of American Life that is dying.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 12.3 million Americans held manufacturing jobs in 2016, down from over 17 million in 2000.

“The fate of Western civilization rests entirely on our ability to make things,” Ratzenberger said. “The world would get along just fine without actors, reality stars, musicians and sports celebrities. Our loved ones would be sad but the world would continue to hum along seamlessly. Think, however, what would happen if all the skilled tradespeople from carpenters and plumbers to farmers and truck drivers decided not to show up for work tomorrow. We, the entire nation, would instantly grind to a halt causing problems that would take generations to overcome.”


One company that is trying to close the skills gap is Siemens, a large manufacturing, and electronics company. According to their CEO, Judy Marks , they spend $50 million annually on training employees.

A large portion of Siemens’ training is through their four-year apprenticeships located in Alabama, Georgia and California. Students at local community colleges get an international-industry certification, a degree and an apprenticeship completion certificate. Once they complete the apprenticeship, they are guaranteed a job at Siemens with a starting salary of around $55,000 a year.

“In the 21 st century, strong work ethic is only part of what is required,” Marks said. “Today workers need to have technical skills earned through training and knowledge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – or STEM – earned through education beyond high-school. A high-school diploma alone is no longer a viable ticket to a manufacturing career, reflecting larger changes throughout our new, digital economy.”

This is evident in the 2008 recession. During this time, Siemens found that 80 percent of workers who lost their jobs had only a high-school diploma. Once more jobs were able to be created, workers with at least some college education filled more than 95 percent of new positions created. According to Marks, by 2020, two out of three jobs will require some postsecondary education, compared to the 1970s when three out of four jobs required a high-school education or less.

Nelson and other members of the committee cited poor marketing of the manufacturing sector to Millennials as a key reason for the decline in jobs.

“Aggravating this problem is a stigma about blue-collar jobs,” Nelson said. “High-school students choosing between university or technical training need to know that many manufacturing workers are well paid and highly sought after. We have to do a better job of changing attitudes when it comes to the perception of technical education and manufacturing jobs.”

While no formal action was taken at the hearing, the Senators agreed that more research has to be done on how to lessen the education gap of manufacturing jobs.

“The bottom line here is that we – educators, industry and all levels of government – must do everything we can to better prepare workers for the job market of today and tomorrow,” Nelson said. “Failure is not an option. We have to expand job opportunities for American workers and make sure our nation has the skilled labor it needs to remain competitive in the global economy.”

DC City Council addresses Mental Health at DCPS Oversight Hearing

By Evangeline Lacroix

DC City Council Wilson Building. Photo by Andrew Wiseman//Wikimedia Commons

Washington — With the release of Mayor Bowser’s proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year, alderman have come to question the spending for DCPS when it comes to spending for special education and social-emotional support staff, such as counselors and school psychologists.


According to the Fiscal Year 2018 (FY2018) Proposed Budget put forth by Mayor Bowser, 135 million dollars, or 17 percent of the total budget allocated to DCPS, has been allocated to special education. In the Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, 99 million dollars were spent on special education.


But for DC Councilman David Grosso (at large), the Chairman of the Education Committee, a main concern of the budget is centered around students with disabilities, mental health accommodations and how they affect one another.


In preparation for finalizing a budget, The DC City Council Education Committee convened to meet with DCPS Chancellor Antwon Wilson, and his top officers to discuss the 2015-2016 school year.


“These sessions give us an opportunity to look back to look at the past school year to prepare for future budget discussions,” said Chairman of the Education Committee David Grosso.


Several questions centered around mental health services within DCPS were brought up by Councilmember Grosso while questioning Williams.


“When you identify students that have trauma needs, can track the services they need? Are there differences in tracking trauma needs from psychological or social work needs for students?” Grosso said. “I know there is some work to track trauma in Ward Seven and Ward Eight. How does DCPS attend to these problems?”


Wilson was unable to give a complete answer to this question. “I would have to check to see if there are differences in tracking trauma, psychological and counseling needs,” Williams said.


As it stands, 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 Responses.


The FY2018 Proposed budget does not break down based off of hiring practices for special education staff or social-emotional support staff. Although, 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.


Grosso also questions concerns raised by his constituents about the procedure for students with disabilities. Individual Education Plan (IEP) students have special protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) of 2004. These protections mandate that every school district must provide free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment possible. Meaning students with disabilities are taught alongside non-disabled peers to the greatest extent possible while still receiving proper care and instruction compliant with IDE contracts.  


“When a parent comes to me about concerns of their level three child, what typically happens?” Grosso said. He is questioning the steps that need to be taken in order to serve students with disabilities. A level three student is a student with the most complex special needs situation.


There is a 120-day timeline for DCPS administrators to meet with parents and to issues the finding on their child for next steps according to Brian Pick, DCPS Chief of Teaching and Learning.


“Our teams work with principles to make sure they can deliver service for children, which will be done regardless of where the parent stands,” Pick said.


But, not all schools have in-house staff dedicated to physical, behavioral or mental health issues.


“I ask [about school services] because people have come to me and said they have presented a school, and they have been counseled to go to a different school because that school does not have the services they need to work with that child,” Grosso said. “That would be a big problem for that to happen in DC.”


According to the Performance Oversight documents, documents that are released as supplementary information for Performance Oversight Hearings, there are currently staffing gaps 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.


When issues arise at those schools that lack social workers or psychologists, ones from the central office are imported to the school for temporary relief, according to the Performance Oversight documents.


Wilson commended school administrators who counsel parents for changing schools for having strong communication skills with parents.


“We are doing everything we can to communicate more broadly,” Wilson said. “I know strong communication happens in schools. The district does track compliance to this work, and it is on school profile sheets.”


while evaluating the efficiency the budgeting for mental health and disabled students, Grosso asked about streamlining the 120-day timeline in compliance with the Special Education Enhancement Act of 2014.


“This is an incredibly important for getting children in the right process to learn,” Grosso said. “How do you need help?”


“It is an additional cost, I don’t want to doubt this. Reducing the timeline means we need more providers, but we are working through this and we are confident that in the end, we will be serving the kids well,” said John Davis, Chief of Schools.


Ultimately working on servicing students with disabilities and their parents in open and consistent dialog are given priority when considering the needs of special education development within DCPS.
“Ultimately everyone is on board with having the best education for IEP students,” Davis said. “It is about having services that will allow IEP students to rejoin their peers.”

Student Activists’ push for a lower tuition

By: Evangeline Lacroix


Washington – The 2016-2017 academic year is a budget planning year for American University administrators, and a new budget will be finalized in the summer. Members of Education Not Debt, a student group on campus, have worked on several campaigns this year to bring awareness to the student body.

Every two years, AU administrators create a new budget,  working to balance the university’s strategic plan, resource allocation and a fair tuition. Through town halls and budget meetings, school administrators work to create a budget that is sent to the Board of Trustees who finalize and pass a new budget.

Education Not Debt works to make sure new budgets prioritize students.

“We make sure the cost of tuition freezes or has the lowest possible tuition hike,” said Amelia Covington, a sophomore studying international relations.

According to AU’s website, the tuition for a full time student during the 2016-2017 school year is 22,023 dollars a semester.  As of March 6, as reported by The Eagle, tuition will rise four percent annually over the next two years.

Covington, who is originally from Chapel Hill, NC  is a core member of Education Not Debt and has been involved since her freshman year.


Amelia Covington, core group member of Education Not Debt.

The group does not have a hierarchical system, meaning that although there is an official e-board for formality, there is no leader. Instead, there are 10 to 15 students who consist of a core group. Each member brings their own skills to the table to promote what they are working on at the time, be that social media or public relation skills, to organizing skills, to dealing with the administration.

“We are not trying to get specific people to join our group, we are inclusive in the sense that anyone can join,” Covington said. “We defiantly need as many people as possible.”

Last spring semester, the group worked to create a referendum on Student Government’s ballot for students to vote on a tuition freeze. The referendum passed, with 84 percent of students supporting a freeze.

This semester they are working on a letter campaign to President Neil Kerwin about the budget freeze because he is the last person to look at the budget before it goes in front of the Board of Trustees. The group will also be tabling to get other students to write letters as well

“We want to insure student voices are heard in the budget process,” Covington said.

When the AU’s budget is not being worked on by on by administrators, the group works oto maintain fair monetary practices by the university. And they work to promote awareness of how student’s tuitions work.

“When I first came to AU I didn’t even realize [the administration] would hike up the cost,” Covington said.

In order to raise awareness of their group and of tuition on campus they host events. Last semester they worked with WVAU to put on an open mic about education.

They also work on more political campaigns that involve university administrators. Last semester the group worked on social media campaigns and several protests centered on the removal of board member Gary Cohn, the CEO of Goldman Sacs.

“He was on the board and profiting off of predatory student loans as the CEO of Goldman Sacs,” Covington said. “At the time we said fire Cohn, but since he was never hired, we were pushing for his removal.”

Education Not Debt, and other student activists who pushed for his removal were successful. Cohn is in the process of stepping down from the Board of Trustees.

Looking forward, Covington says it is important to stay connected to the student body to be able to complete successful campaigns.

“Even if people are not willing or able to be involved every week, even if they like our Facebook page to stay up to date, it is very useful to be able to galvanize the student body,” Covington said.




Steve Early Talks Progressive Politics at Busboys and Poets

Steve Early Talks Progressive Politics at Busboys and Poets

By Evangeline Lacroix


Steve Early (right) addressing the audience at Busboys and Poets.

While working on a story for, In These Times on the Vermont Progressive Party, Steve Early was documenting a culture he knew well. This was not his first trip to Vermont. As a labor organizer, lawyer and freelance journalist based out of New England over the past 27 years he has traveled all over the US to promote the progressive party.

Early, 67, sat down with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to discuss Sanders involvement in the movement he fostered into existence. As longtime friends, Sanders pushed Early to think about progressive politics on a wider scale. Urging him to produce a case study of progressivism in mainstream media.

Sanders argued to Early that an honest explanation of the progressive movement had to be published outside of the bubble of the alternative press.

Early then set out for Richmond, CA a largely non-white working-class town centered on a Chevron Corporation oil refinery. He lived here for five years, completing the book Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City.

In a conversation with Larry Cohen, the former president of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and longtime friend, at the flagship Busboys and Poets at 14th and V Street, Early talked to the audience about the book, but also more broadly about the state of the progressive party in America and what the future of it looks like.

“Every city is not Richmond, but they all have resemblances,” Cohen, 62, said when introducing Early.

Richmond has a long history of being an oil town. Standard Oil, who formally ceased operations in 1911, did not leave Richmond until the 1950s when Chevron took over its refinery. Since then, natural disasters caused by the refinery, paired with the big money Chevron puts into local politics created a dynamic of disenfranchisement of the citizens of Richmond.

Richmond is a working-class city that grassroots organizers tackle with an intersectional mindset. Organizers grapple with how race, class and the environment intersect with the biggest business in the area: Chevron Corporation.

“These are people who believe in building collective political power,” Early said.

The book tells the story of the creation of the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) formed 14 years ago to coalesce many small left leaning political parties, organizations and nonprofits to create an alliance of over 115,000 people.

To RPA, Chevron put profit before the community building its own coalition with the local police and fire unions. Creating an unbalanced power dynamic in the city that tipped the scales in favor of Chevron because of their use of big money in politics.

Since their formation, RPA has tried to balance this scale by helping to elect members of their party into local elections into 10 out of 16 available seats since formation.  Their focus is to place people in office who prioritize the community and not career politicians trying to work their way up California’s political ladder.

While Chevron donated 3.1 million to people running for local office in the last election, it is critical for progressives to fundraise as much as possible to gain traction in elections.

Part of their success was due to changes in local campaign finance laws and public matching funds for election funds. In 2015, if a candidate raises 25,000 dollars in campaign contributions, the city gives the campaign 12,000 more dollars.

While on-RPA candidates were spending 30 times the amount of money, the RPA has been so successful because of the community building they are able to accomplish.

“A shift to voices of the working class is essential,” Cohen said. “You have to bring working class people and other progressives together to build.”

Looking to the future of the progressive party Early said it was integral that young people are involved at every level of progressive organizations.

“In order for RPA to advance, older people had to take a step back for women of color and young people,” Early said.

Organizations like RPA have to be intentional and intergenerational in order to pass on a successful legacy.

“We need a thriving infrastructure of mentoring and funding to help people with different levels of experience and get together with other like-minded groups,” Cohen said.

Cohen and Early both expressed noted differences in how younger progressives take to organizing than people in older generations.

“The 21st century is more conscious and less spontaneous with organization,” Early said.

Yong people are more likely to think critically about the work they are in concerns about being mindful of differences between disenfranchised communities.

“Richmond believed they could unite,” Cohen said. “Can we as working class people win if we believe we can win, we can fight like Richmond?”