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Over the last couple of months, China Jones-Burgess has embraced the homeschool experience, mainly out of frustration with what she described as the lack of empathy and value placed on her as a student at the two District schools she’s attended over the last year.
Even though she’s away from the traditional education setting, China said she’s been able to depend on her close-knit network of friends to serve as a sounding board for her grievances. She said that’s especially been the case since the pandemic, when mental wellness came to the forefront as a major issue for students in District public and public charter schools.
As the D.C. Council prepares to vote on legislation that launches peer educator programs, China, who’s searching for a District school to enroll in next fall, said she relishes the possibility of speaking intimately with other young people in a safe space.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re all we got. We build bonds and friendships with youth who want to have someone they can confide in regarding mental health issues they face in the community, school and at home,” said China, a student representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.
“Everyone doesn’t give the best advice therefore my peers turn to one another to seek answers to critical issues they face. During the pandemic, we were leaning on each other to figure out how to do our work together. It was harder to understand things, so we depended on each other to get our work done.”
In its committee markup, the D.C. Council’s Committee on Health included legislation titled the School-Based Behavioral Health Student Peer Educator Pilot Amendment Act. The legislation launches a pilot program through which the Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) allocates funds to two community-based organizations that will recruit, train and supervise at least 100 peer educators.
Once they complete their training, these peer educators, who attend schools in Wards 5, 7 and 8, will be responsible for making classroom presentations, distributing educational materials, conducting one-on-one sessions with their peers, and sharing information to connect students with school-based behavioral health staff.
The Committee on Health recommended $325,000 in one-time funds to be used for this endeavor.
The report compiled by the Committee on Health cited a study conducted by students at the Young Women’s Project that found that many of their peers didn’t know the name of the mental health service provider at their school. D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large), chair of the Committee on Health, told The Informer that students who testified at council hearings often spoke about relying on friends for information about on-campus services.
In explaining the legislation, Henderson stressed that peer educators wouldn’t replace behavioral health professionals. Instead, they would serve as a bridge between their friends and on-campus service providers, if it ever gets to that point that students need such resources.
“The peer-to-peer model is [for students] to provide resources when they are needed [and] educate others about strategies and walk them to professionals,” Henderson said. “The grantees would be organizations that do this work to provide training around what students would talk about. Needs vary among students, like triage and prevention. [The question is]: How do we prevent a major episode?”
Due to workforce shortages, the 2022-2023 school year is anticipated to end with more than 90 clinician vacancies at more than 70 District public and public charter schools that have established partnerships with DBH and community-based organizations. Those closely familiar with the trend say that private practice has become more attractive to clinicians.
For Laura Maestas, executive director at DC Prep Public Charter School, the situation has become even more daunting since half of the six campuses under her purview have clinician vacancies.
Earlier this year, Maestas pleaded with the D.C. Council to increase funding for community-based organization clinician grants. She said that, without more clinicians, the few who are on site, via compensation directly from DC Prep, have an even bigger caseload that makes it harder to reach students who don’t have a 504 plan or individualized education plan (IEP), but require just as much attention.
To solve that problem, DC Prep has partnered with the WISE Center, a program out of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital that supports schools with comprehensive mental wellness approaches. When it comes to a peer educator program, Maestas espouses support for it at the middle school level, as long as it works in tandem with on-site clinicians.
“We have a number of students who need a lot more support than we are able to provide. We think about where it’s appropriate to have students receive services in groups rather than individual counseling,” Maestas said.
“What I’m hearing [from counselors] is that they have an obligation to make sure students are taken care of, and they need to figure out how to do more,” she added. “It makes me nervous that we’re burning out clinicians. There’s an overwhelming need to go above and beyond.”