The latest in State Comptroller DiNapoli’s series of audits of health and safety in schools finds that, in the face of a mental health crisis among youth, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) can do more to ensure that public school students receive the supports and services that they need and that are supposed to be available. The audit found that too many NYC public schools are understaffed with mental health professionals, are not adequately training staff and too few have services readily available—and that DOE provides little oversight to ensure students receive the required mental health instruction critical to developing their awareness and resilience.
“While DOE has shown a willingness to confront these issues, many of New York’s school children still face a mental health emergency, and schools are not equipped to provide them with the support they need,” said DiNapoli. “At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated a worsening mental health crisis among youth in New York State, the DOE should step up efforts to improve oversight of public schools’ mental health curriculum and equip school staff with the resources they need to support students’ emotional wellbeing.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of childhood mental health concerns have been increasing steadily since 2010. Among the New York state high school student population in 2017, around 17% of youth seriously considered suicide and slightly over 10% made non-fatal suicide attempts. This mental health crisis has been further compounded by the isolation, disengagement, and instability brought on by the pandemic as well as other traumatic societal events, making the need for comprehensive mental health training, services and supports even more critical.
State law requires that mental health instruction be a part of schools’ health education. However, auditors found that DOE does not take any action to ensure that schools have included a mental health component in their curriculum and are providing mental health instruction to the students, nor does it monitor whether schools’ programs meet the minimum requirements or assess their effectiveness.
In addition, based on DOE’s self-reported data for the 2020-21 school year, a time when mental health supports were especially critical, it is evident that many schools fell well below the staff-to-student ratio recommended by National Association of Social Workers, American School Counselor Association, and National Association of School Psychologists.
Among the audit’s findings:
- Only 1,101 out of 1,524 public schools had at least one social worker; of those schools, 80% did not meet the recommended social-worker-to-student ratio of 1:250.
- 423 public schools did not have a social worker at all.
- Although 1,422 out of 1,524 public schools had at least one school counselor, 910 (64%) of these did not meet the recommended school counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250.
Given the shortage of professional staff, mental health awareness training of all staff would be a valuable “first line of defense” to identify signs of mental health struggles among students. Although school staff (i.e., principals, teachers, paraprofessionals) are not required to receive mental health awareness training DOE makes staff training available. However, attendance at these training sessions was low at the schools sampled in the audit. Besides improving attendance, offering such mental health awareness training to non-pedagogical staff could also benefit students.
The audit also uncovered issues with the DOE’s delivery and oversight of mental health programs. DOE’s website, for example, highlighted six mental health programs and touted that “one of these mental health programs is offered at your child’s school.” That claim was false, auditors found, as nearly 40% (563) of DOE’s 1,524 schools did not have even one of these structured mental health programs. DOE officials later acknowledged that these programs were indeed not provided to all schools but claimed that the 563 schools did have other supports and programs; DOE officials could not readily provide information about these other programs.
Notably, previous audit reports have also taken issue with DOE’s limited oversight and lack of proactivity regarding student health and safety. In particular, bullying and harassment are a common root cause of mental health issues, but an audit of DOE’s Implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act (2017-N-6) found a general complacency regarding DOE’s responsibility for accurately reporting such incidents. The DOE administration at the time generally denied the need for the improvements that DiNapoli’s audits identified, however, the new administration has shown greater openness to audit recommendations. The latest audit encourages the new administration to forge a stronger commitment to creating a change in culture by ensuring that all schools are complying with the mental health education requirement and have the necessary resources to serve all students and to provide intervention for those in crisis.
DiNapoli recommended that DOE:
- Monitor schools’ curriculum to ensure they meet requirements of the state education law.
- Require schools to ensure all staff who have daily interactions with students attend mental health awareness training.
- Explore ways to maintain appropriate mental health professional staffing levels at all schools.
- Explore ways to collect, document and analyze mental health related information.
- Promote knowledge sharing among schools, including their solutions for remote mental health monitoring.
DOE generally agreed with the audit’s findings. The department’s response is included in the report.
Recent State Comptroller Reports on Mental Health Education in Schools
Oversight of Mental Health Education in Schools: State Education Department, April 2022
Mental Health Training Component of the New York SAVE Act, June 2022