By AMY FORLITI Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Teachers in Minneapolis say they’ve noticed more kids with anxiety and depression. One school counselor says she’s seen more fights and drug use. Some kids tell parents they’re frustrated — because learning stops when teachers have to deal with disruptive students in class.
Increased mental health services for students in Minneapolis, where the problems of the COVID-19 pandemic were compounded by the trauma of George Floyd’s killing, is a key issue for the more than 4,500 educators and support staff who were on strike for a second day Wednesday.
“These kids have been through hell,” said Erika Brask, who has a daughter in the district. And of the teachers, she said: “What we have expected of them is not sustainable.”
“Because there’s not enough mental health support in schools the teachers have to deal with it, and the kids are the ones who suffer,” she said.
The union is seeking reduced caseloads for special education teachers, school psychologists, social workers and counselors. It’s also seeking increased reserves of special education aides and others to help teachers.
Ben Polk, a special education aide, said he deals with understaffing every day.
Polk said he is typically assigned to assist two to three students in a classroom with “very high behavioral needs.” Because there aren’t enough aides to help other students who need support, he often winds up helping six or seven in a classroom of 35.
“That’s not possible for one person to do,” he said. “It’s crowded, everyone suffers. … It’s too intense an environment for the teacher to really do their job and the kids to get the education they’re entitled to.”
Superintendent Ed Graff has acknowledged children and teachers need more mental health support. The district said it is spending some of nearly $90 million in federal COVID-19-relief funding on mental health.
But Graff has said the teachers’ requests — which also include higher wages — would cost roughly $166 million annually beyond what’s currently budgeted. He said the district has a $26 million budget shortfall for next year.
“We have all these priorities that we want to have happen. And we don’t have the resources. And someone’s got to be able to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do it,’” Graff has said.
At least 2,000 Minneapolis teachers, staffers and supporters bundled up for a rally outside the state Capitol on Wednesday. Speakers demanded that the state tap its $9.25 billion surplus to increase school funding.
Kelsey Clark, a school counselor at South High School and a member of the bargaining team, said her school has five counselors, each with a caseload of about 300 to 350 students — a ratio she said was lower than most. She said having a mental health support team — including social workers and psychologists — is vital for all schools.
“Over this year and the past few years there have been so many things in the world — the pandemic that is still happening, us going to distance learning,” said Clark, whose school is near the site of Floyd’s murder. “There have been so many deaths due to racial incidents, due to COVID, that have just had a traumatic impact on students.”
She said she has seen rising cases of anxiety and depression, more violence and more drug use. Two weeks ago, she was the first adult called to help after a student passed out due to drugs. Another student came to her office and broke down, saying they couldn’t concentrate due to anxiety and stress.
“In the past our mental health team would do presentations and do grade-level assemblies about different things, whether it’s consent or offering resources,” she said. “We haven’t been able to do things in that way. The last assembly we did try and have, a fight broke out.”
She said a lower counselor-to-student ratio would allow staff to head off potential problems.
Brask said her elementary-age daughter has anxiety and sensory processing disorder that can make it hard for her to concentrate if it’s noisy. Sometimes she’ll fidget, and sometimes she just becomes overwhelmed and can shut down. Her daughter often needs extra support, she said.
She worked out a plan for her daughter to have a standing time to see the school social worker, but the meeting sometimes doesn’t happen if the social worker has to deal with a crisis, Brask said.
And when students are disruptive in class, it can affect her daughter — but the teachers take the brunt of it, she said.
“Unless they have kids in the district and know what is going on, people have no idea how hard these teachers work to compensate for the lack of support they receive from the district,” she said.
Associated Press writers Steve Karnowski and Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.