Lawmakers debate merits of mental health services in schools; Riverton superintendent weighs in

    Riverton’s school superintendent was involved in a conversation among state legislators this week about the appropriateness of providing mental health services in Wyoming schools.

    The discussion took place after the Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Education Committee heard a presentation from the Wyoming Department of Education about the resources and programs currently available to K-12 students in need of mental health services in the state.

    The information prompted Wyoming Sen. Bo Biteman, R-Ranchester, to comment, “I don’t know if I’m listening to the Department of Education or the Department of Health.”


    “To me this is a very giant leap into unchartered territory for the Department of Education,” Biteman said. “A philosophical question we have to ask ourselves is: Is this too far? Is mental health in schools beyond the scope of the Department of Education?”

    ‘We can’t ignore it’

    In response to Biteman’s question, Wyoming Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, pointed out that “schools have had to deal with (student mental health) because they’ve got the kids in front of them.”

    “This is a more complex issue,” Scott said. “We’ve got some real problems that are affecting the education that are not being dealt with.”

    Fremont County School District 25 superintendent Dr. JoAnne Andre-Flanagan echoed some of Scott’s remarks when she addressed the committee later in the meeting, sharing a story about a local student who tried to commit suicide in a school bathroom earlier this month.


    “These are realities we deal with,” Flanagan said. “These kids walk into our school every single day, and we can’t ignore it – we simply can’t.”

    The problem is getting more widespread, she added, sharing data that shows 27 local students were placed at the Wyoming Behavioral Institute this year because they were “at risk of self-harm and suicide” – up from four in 2021.

    Statewide, 9 percent of Wyoming students attempted suicide in the last 12 months, according to the WDE.


    Those numbers represent a problem that directly affects Wyoming’s educational system, Wyoming Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, argued – because “children cannot learn when they are stressed, they can’t learn when they’re depressed, they can’t learn when they’re suicidal, and they can’t learn when they’re dead.”

    “We need to provide an education – a good, equitable education,” Provenza said. “We cannot do that if our children are depressed, stressed, and suicidal. So … we are going to prioritize (mental health). We are going to do this. Because our children are dying.”

    Parental rights

    Biteman had also asked whether mental health services in schools might represent “a major encroachment upon parental rights,” but WDE innovations officer Laurel Ballard assured the committee that parents and guardians are always involved in the process.


    “The family (is) really the basis of the decision as to what types of supports, what types of services, what types of needs … a student may have,” Ballard said. “We provide access to services, (but) the ultimate arbitrator and decider of what is happening with that kid is parents and the caregivers.”

    Flanagan confirmed that, even when parents or guardians aren’t “able or willing, themselves, to provide (mental health) services for their kids … they always have to give approval” before the school steps in to help.

    “They are always informed,” she said. “They always have to sign an agreement.”

    The Education Committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Aug. 8-9 in Cheyenne.


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