Juvenile services reform bill greeted with mixed reactions

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D.C. charter school and youth advocates voiced opposition Thursday to portions of a bill that would require teachers to screen students for behavioral health problems and more quickly refer truant students to the court system.

The South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011 - so named to memorialize four young people fatally shot in a March 30, 2010, incident in Southeast - is meant to stem youth truancy and address behavioral health issues that could lead to violence, said D.C. Council member and bill sponsor David A. Catania.

Among the requirements presented in the six-part bill, public school teachers and staff at early childhood centers would have to undergo additional training to identify and screen children with behavioral health issues.

“D.C. charter schools cannot possibly bear the administrative burden this legislation would impose,” said Ramona H. Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools, during a council Committee of the Whole hearing on the measure.

Already stressed teachers may have difficulty finding time to regularly screen their students during their busy classroom schedule, said Don Soifer, a D.C. Public Charter School Board member.

“We are not convinced the classrooms are the best places for these issues to be addressed,” Mr. Soifer said.

Several advocates in favor of the bill noted that teachers are better suited than other professionals, such as doctors, to screen children for behavioral issues because they interact with them every day.

Others, such as Nardyne Jefferies, who lost her 16-year-old daughter, Brishell Jones, in the South Capitol Street shooting and worked with Mr. Catania on the legislation, said more preventative measures are needed to ensure the problems among area youth that contribute to violence are not ignored.

“Whatever went on in their lives, no one helped them. Because of that neglect … this is the end result,” she said of the shooting that took her daughter’s life.

Due to the lack of access to treatment, stigma attached to seeking help from a mental health professional, and lack of screening and diagnosis, many children in the District with behavioral health problems are not receiving treatment, professionals at the committee discussion said.

Of the estimated 14 percent to 20 percent of D.C. children who have mental health needs, the Department of Mental Health is only providing services for about 5 percent of them, said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center.

“The people who lost their lives are victims, but I believe that even the people who committed the murders are victims,” said council member Yvette M. Alexander, Ward 7 Democrat.

The bill also requires a comprehensive report on the behavioral health of D.C. youth, the establishment of a behavioral health ombudsman to advocate for residents, and the development of outreach materials to educate parents on how to screen for mental and behavioral health problems.

Another portion of the bill that stirred controversy recommends truant students be referred to D.C. Superior Court and the city’s Office of the Attorney General after seven unexcused absences within a 30-day period or after 10 unexcused absences within one academic year. Currently, students are referred to the court system only after they miss 25 days of school.

Eduardo Ferrer, chief operating officer of D.C. Lawyers for Youth, said he would rather see students referred to an in-school truancy prevention program than to the courts. Court appearances can disrupt students’ schedules and sending them into the criminal justice system can undermine their sense of self-worth, said Ms. Sandalow.

“We need consequences,” said Mr. Catania, at-large independent. “Even the chief judge of the truancy court recognizes that 25 [absences] is too late.”

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