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Murray Middle School in St. Paul is better positioned than most to tend to the mental health needs of its students, but staffing has its limits.

The school's social worker serves special-education students only, and the contract psychologist works part-time — meaning there's only so much support to go around.

"It's really just hard being a middle school kid," said Erin Dooley, a Murray science teacher. "I often think: What age would I not want to relive?"

Dooley also is a member of the bargaining team for the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), the union threatening to strike next week against the state's second-largest district. Student mental health supports is an issue driving the stalemate and has emerged as a priority for school systems across the state and nationally.

Last fall, striking teachers in Chicago came away with a deal that will put a social worker and a nurse in every school, plus add significantly to the ranks of counselors, special-education case managers and restorative justice coordinators, Education Week reported.

SPFE's proposal is ambitious — it wants a mental health team in every building — and well beyond what Superintendent Joe Gothard is willing to OK.

Gothard says the union's mental health proposal would require the hiring of 300 new student-support staffers at a cost of $30 million a year. That is in addition to the 500 full-time positions he said the district now has dedicated to student health and social-emotional well-being.

In a mediation update Wednesday, Gothard wrote: "I've received many letters urging us to invest in mental health proposals. However, we do not have the funds for everything SPFE is proposing."

Last week, a state House committee heard a proposal for a one-year grant program that would help districts and teachers better serve students who have endured adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, including stresses around domestic violence, divorce, homelessness and emotional and sexual abuse.

Legislators heard how behavioral referrals were down 32% at a North St. Paul elementary school through the help of a therapist and a full-time social worker. But the social worker testified that the therapist had a full caseload of 21 children and she, too, was "full to the brim with students and families to work with."

Peter Eckhoff, president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers, attended and was prepared to testify, but time ran out. His written remarks show nearly 84% of Robbinsdale teachers surveyed in the past year say adverse childhood experiences were affecting student success. In an interview later, Eckhoff commended St. Paul educators for being leaders on the issue and said he was watching the talks closely.

"As goes St. Paul, we all go," he said.

Students speak out

The need to address student mental health was heightened last fall by release of the Minnesota Student Survey. The survey, taken every three years, revealed that more than a quarter of 11th-graders reported having mental, behavioral or emotional disorders lasting at least six months.

Minnetonka school board hopefuls discussed the topic in a candidates forum at the time. In Minnetonka, 17% of 11th-grade girls said they seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Statewide, too, girls in 11th grade reported significantly higher rates of mental health problems than boys.

In St. Paul, suicidal thoughts among girls were most prevalent in eighth grade — the final year of middle school — with 19% of girls saying they'd seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year. Questions about suicide were not asked of fifth-graders, but more than 40% of those boys and girls in St. Paul — when asked about their thoughts over the previous 30 days — said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: "I worry a lot."

District's counteroffer

As it prepared to make its case for mental health teams, the St. Paul federation circulated a request for testimonials. Angel Colonna, a parent at Cherokee Heights Elementary, said she had a story to tell, and during a recent rally, Nick Faber, the union's president, shared how Colonna's repeated pleas for support in her son's classroom went unheeded by the district in 2018-19. Furniture was thrown. Children hurt one another. Very little learning went on.

Colonna expanded on the experiences in a recent interview that also covered the difficult hour during which her son went missing at school.

Hurt by cruel words from other boys, her son decided one day he'd had enough, and as children returned to class from recess, he hid under a playground bench.

His mother was notified he had been found while she rushed to the school from a job in Plymouth. This year, Colonna said, things are much better at Cherokee Heights. But she still recalls the nights spent "crying myself to sleep," she said, "wondering if I'm doing the right thing as a parent to send my kid to school every day."

The union's proposal is a big request, requiring teams staffed by a social worker, counselor, nurse and behavior intervention specialist, plus more psychologists districtwide.

Gothard countered in February with an offer of an additional $1.2 million in mental health supports districtwide.

Dooley, asked why the union set its sights so high, said it was preferable to going by position and saying you wanted a couple more of these or a couple more of those.

The thinking was, she said, "If there is an ideal, what's the best it would look like?"

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109