Pugh wants psychological services for Baltimore school students to cope with violence

Mayor: children are suffering the consequences of the violence in Baltimore and need access to psychologists.

Mayor Catherine Pugh said Friday she wants children encountering Baltimore's surge in violence to have access to psychologists in schools to help them deal with fear and trauma.

Pugh — asked to comment on the series of shootings Thursday that left one person dead and eight injured — said she is concerned about therapy and other resources available to the city's 82,000 public school students in the face of the district's $130 million budget shortfall.

"We have as a role and responsibility to make sure they are taken care of," Pugh said. "In a city that is currently this violent, those psychologists and so forth should be in our schools. Those are resources we need to take care of our children."

The district has 142 full-time psychologists, and Pugh does not have a specific plan to expand the services. Her spokesman said the mayor's comments were aimed at spotlighting a long-term goal to ensure children have access to therapeutic services.

The mayor is expected to announce a funding plan Monday to help address the district's budget problems.

Pugh, a former state senator, declined to offer details Friday and is expected to spend the weekend working with state lawmakers to develop options.

District officials have warned that without more funding, they might need to lay off more than 1,000 employees, including teachers. It's unclear how school psychologists or therapeutic services might be affected as individual schools look to trim their budgets.

The shortfall was caused by a number of factors, including a drop in student enrollment and an increase in the city's wealth on paper. The city has waived collection of some property taxes under various tax-financing agreements to lure new development.

Pugh said during a Friday news conference that the city has a problem with escalating violence, and children are facing the consequences. She said she was struck when a third-grader asked her during a recent Black History Month event, "How are you going to keep us safe?"

"That's concerning," Pugh said. "When people talk about why Baltimore City public schools need so much — besides being lead-paint-poisoned, besides watching the victims of crime and hearing on the news every day that somebody is being killed — it is creating fear, fear in their minds."

Dr. Kim Gordon, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with Sheppard Pratt Health System, said stress that comes from exposure to violence can lead children to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or change their cognitive processes, putting them at risk for mental illness and substance abuse.

Children lower on the socioeconomic scale are most at risk, she said.

Gordon commended Pugh for recognizing the need for comprehensive, school-based intervention.

"These kids can and do succeed in the school system with the services that are in place," Gordon said. "Once those services are in place, they do as good as — or better than — other children, because they are highly resilient."

James Padden, director of related services for the city schools system, said the district has four types of mental health clinicians in the schools. In addition to the psychologists, who are deployed based on school enrollment, the district has social workers, counselors and mental health workers.

Including contractual staff, the schools have about 560 trained, certified and licensed mental health clinicians in the school. They are trained in trauma care and participate in professional development.

The district works with multiple partners to provide therapeutic services, including Behavioral Health System Baltimore, Hope Health Systems, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Catholic Charities and the University of Maryland.

The district also has received federal grants to help pay for trauma services.

A two-year Promoting Student Resilience grant for $2.4 million from the Department of Education was awarded in the fall. The grant is going toward mental health services at about a dozen schools in West Baltimore. A five-year, $5 million Resilience in Communities After Stress and Trauma grant was recently awarded by the Department of Health and Human Services to the city Health Department.

Rachel Donegan, assistant director of Promise Heights, an initiative out of the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said children carry community violence into the classroom, where it comes out in different ways depending on their age and coping skills. Some kids are withdrawn and have trouble concentrating. Others are rambunctious or disruptive.

Mental health services can come in many forms that can build on access to psychologists, including yoga and mindfulness programs, she said.

Drop-in programs, puppet shows and group lunches can also help facilitate meaningful discussions and help the children build tools.

"It's an issue schools are going to have to deal with in one way or another," Donegan said. "We still want them to be able to learn and access the education being offered to them. Those emotions get in the way of that."

ywenger@baltsun.com

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