Government

New school year, new laws focus on mental health, school safety, lunch-shaming

Students eat lunch in the Diagonal School lunchroom in Diagonal on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, as Ronda Plowman and Donna Goodman (background center and right) serve meals into small containers for the school’s day care students. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette).
Students eat lunch in the Diagonal School lunchroom in Diagonal on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, as Ronda Plowman and Donna Goodman (background center and right) serve meals into small containers for the school’s day care students. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette).
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DES MOINES — Ever since her son took his own life just days before his 19th birthday, Mary Neubauer has been a vocal advocate for stronger mental health care resources in Iowa.

Some new resources should be available in public schools across the state as they began the 2018-19 school year this past week.

A new state law, one of a handful that could bring significant change to Iowa public K-12 schools this year, requires educators to undergo training designed to help them identify students experiencing mental health issues and to establish protocols for suicide prevention.

“This puts in place a framework for the real work to begin to develop the programs and to put in place the capacity and the help that is needed,” Neubauer said when the legislation was signed into law this past spring. This school year is the first since the law went into effect.

“Do I think that these bills are going to solve every ill out there? No. I don’t know a bill that could. But it’s a huge, positive affirmation,” Neubauer said.

Other new laws likely to have an impact on school districts as they begin the new school year include a requirement that all schools have active shooter and disaster response plans, a ban on publicly shaming students who have overdue school lunch fees, and a funding boost for rural districts with high transportation costs.

Emily Piper, with the Iowa Association of School Boards, said the suicide prevention training package was designed to strike a balance between providing resources to educators without asking them to diagnose depression or mental illness.

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“Not diagnose, but how do you notice and talk to students about what their needs are?” Piper said. “How do you identify the symptoms and what do you do to mitigate that in the classroom, but stay away from putting a label on a child?”

The suicide rate for boys ages 15 to 19 years increased by 31 percent from 2007 to 2015, and the rate for girls of the same ages doubled over the same time, according to federal data.

“This bill is a critical first step, but let me be clear this is just the first step,” Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds said when she signed the legislation into law. “We cannot stop here. Our children’s mental health and well-being system isn’t where it needs to be.”

ACTIVE SHOOTER/DISASTER RESPONSE PLANS

Under a new state law, schools are now required to have plans in place for responses to natural disasters and active shooter situations.

There have been more than 200 school shootings in the U.S., resulting in the deaths of at least 141 children and educators, since 1999, according to research by the Washington Post.

There have been no events in Iowa during that time, according to the Post’s research.

Education officials said many Iowa districts already had some response plans in place, but the new law requires districts to have active shooter and natural disaster response plans for every building in the district.

The law also instructs the state education department to provide resources to districts on best practices for their response plans.

“As districts work on their plans this year, and are reviewing plans in place, they have the latest updated information at their fingertips to be able to incorporate into their plans,” said Dr. Roark Horn, executive director of the School Administrators of Iowa. “It streamlines districts’ abilities to get resources and the help they need.”

BAN ON ‘LUNCH-SHAMING’

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Schools may not identify students who owe money for school meals under another new state law in effect this school year.

The ban on so-called lunch-shaming or food-shaming was enacted after state lawmakers learned some schools required such students to sit together at tables separate from classmates, perform chores to pay for meals or prohibit them from participating in certain school activities.

“There certainly were some isolated incidents where there was some high-profile attention,” Piper said. “Generally speaking, school districts are not in the business of shaming their students. ... There are instances where the best of intentions may have appeared damaging.”

The new law also gave schools the authority to explore various means to settle school lunch debt, which has been as high as $60,000 in some Iowa districts, a state lawmaker said.

Ryan Wise, director of the state education department, said the new law addresses the issue by ensuring students are not publicly shamed, increasing communication with parents about options for low-income families, and the increased flexibility for schools to settle lunch debt.

“I think the bill was really intentional in taking a holistic approach to this issue,” Wise said.

TRANSPORTATION FUNDING

The state committed $11.2 million to districts with the highest per-pupil transportation costs.

Rural districts with wide geographical boundaries have expressed frustration that they are forced to spend more money on transportation than other districts, leaving those rural districts with less funding for the classroom.

The new funding is designed to provide extra money to the districts with the largest per-pupil transportation costs to bring them down to the state average. The funding is expected to help just more than a third of Iowa school districts.

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Piper said rural districts are thankful for the additional funding but are concerned that it was not created as a permanent funding source. Instead, the funding — as the new law is written — will be determined on an annual basis.

That means future legislatures could, during a difficult budget year, decide not to include the new transportation funding boost.

“It does mean districts aren’t going to be able to make big changes in their budgeting,” Piper said. “Districts will have to act like it’s one-time money (because there’s no guarantee after the first year).”

Horn said he was pleased the state established the new transportation funding boost without drawing from other sources. He thinks that makes it more likely future legislatures will continue to provide the funding.

“I would say (school administrators across the state) think this was very fairly done and a good thing to happen and improves equity to the districts,” Horn said. “Obviously they would like to see that continue going forward.”

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