Mental health tops list of Montgomery Co. student concerns

Students from Montgomery County schools made it clear to the board of education that they want easily accessible mental health services, which they say is seriously lacking.

“There’s no doubt that the shooting at Magruder has changed us,” Himanshu Gediya, a senior at Magruder High School, told board members at Thursday’s meeting. “This entire school year has changed us.”

Himanshu was referring to the January shooting in a school bathroom that left one student critically wounded. That incident, and a number of episodes of violence at schools across the county during this academic year, have fueled new discussions of the role of police in schools.

But at Thursday’s board meeting, students focused on the need for better counseling services versus a police presence in schools.

Another Magruder senior, Grace Simonson, repeated a concern that ease of access to mental health services at school remains difficult: “If the students do not feel the actual benefit of your work, then what is it all for?”

Elena Davisson, a junior at Magruder, said counseling and mental health services provided after the shooting in January were temporary, and students were soon expected to return to their normal routines.

“Instead of listening to students from Magruder, I guess we all collectively decided to only listen to the moms on Facebook or Twitter who were complaining about (School Resource Officers) being taken out of schools,” she said, referring to the discontinued public safety program that had posted SROs inside schools.

Currently, police are assigned to school clusters as CEOs, or Community Engagement Officers, but are not stationed inside school buildings.

After the shooting at Magruder High School, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Monifa McKnight said the role of police in and around school buildings would be reconsidered, with CEOs having access to work stations in schools.

“I think it’s appropriate to support the schools in their efforts to ensure safety and security,” for students and staff, Montgomery County Council President Gabe Albornoz told reporters Monday.

Students speaking at Thursday’s meeting repeated their preference for an emphasis on mental health support.

“Is the addition of SROs going to solve the issues after they’ve already happened,” Baba Cisse, a junior at Albert Einstein High School asked. “An officer would not be my first choice,” to talk to about mental health struggles, he added.

“You’ve heard the voices at Blair and Northwest crying out. You’ve heard the voices at Magruder crying out. You’ve heard the voices from around the county cry out. So I ask you, will you stand up and hear the cries for help,” Cisse said in closing, drawing applause.

Board member Shebra Evans addressed students directly when she responded to the testimony.

“I just need you to know that we do care, we do hear you, we are listening” she said.

A past president of the board, Evans told students that better mental health support was a budget priority in recent years. But, she added: “I’m just going to be honest. We can never do enough.”

The school system has plans to hire as many as 50 school psychologists and counselors, and offered positions to 15 recent applicants.

But board member Lynn Harris echoed some of the frustration voiced by students when she noted that similar concerns had been relayed to the board repeatedly over the course of the school year.

“They’re telling us what they need,” Harris said of the students’ comments, adding that the same concerns being brought to the board once again indicates “this is a pervasive problem that we have not yet addressed.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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