The first of six regional School-Based Behavioral Health Forums was held this week at The Carter Center in Atlanta.
Panels addressed ways to make the most of the $8.4 million in funding Gov. Brian Kemp pledged to pay for more mental health counselors in schools through the Georgia Apex Program.
The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities started Apex in 2015 and the increase in funding is expected to increase coverage of mental health providers in schools to almost 20 percent of Georgia’s schools by 2020.
“Almost 20 percent of children and adolescents in Georgia have a diagnosed mental health disorder,” Carter Center Mental Health Program Director Eve Byrd said.
Monday's forum was designed to help educators, parents, policy leaders, behavioral health experts and providers understand and implement changes in public schools that will lead to a more positive school climate, where students and staff members feel safe and respected.
Maribel Bell, director of student discipline for the Fulton County School District, said issues of discipline are often symptoms of deeper root causes that haven't been addressed through punishment.
Children are receptive to help, when they can get it, she said. In the last three years, Bell said more than 800 staff were trained in youth mental health first aid.
"It's not just teachers but everyone: bus drivers, just anyone who gets to have interactions with students during the day," Bell said.
Teachers and public school staff members are being trained to recognize students' needs and that something deeper is going on when they act out. The root causes may be things such as violence at home or in the community, or trauma from knowing someone who died as a result of gun violence, Georgia Department of Education Program Manager Cheryl Galloway-Benefield said.
"You're talking about fixing kids and we can't be about fixing kids," Galloway-Benefield said. "We have to work on adults and how we run our schools; how we work in our schools."
She said changing "school climate" means changing the behavior of adults to improve children's behavior.
"When your school climate's better, your staff want to be there [and] your kids want to be there," Galloway-Benefield said. "When everybody wants to be there, they're not scared. It's not dirty. It's a good place to be and everybody feels safe and respected and admired."
The next two forums hosted by The Carter Center, Georgia Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, and Voices for Georgia’s Children are planned for August in Albany and October in Savannah.
Watch two of the panels from April 15, 2019, at The Carter Center: