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The Aegis
Harford County

Harford school board approves policy allowing student mental health days

The Harford Board of Education Monday night approved allowing student mental health absences as part of its revised student attendance policy.

The policy ensures that Harford County Public Schools can provide resources to any student who uses a mental health absence, said Bernard Hennigan, the county school system’s executive director of student support services. The mental health support was part of the school system’s safety plan presented during its virtual town hall in July.

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Additionally, the policy follows the trend the state Department of Education set a few years ago when it comes to failing students based on attendance, Hennigan said. Previously, the HCPS policy stated that parents were notified when their child missed six days in a full-year course and the child was failed after missing 11 days, depending on the situation.

With the new policy, if a student misses 10% or 18 days of a full-year course, they’ll fail the course, again depending on the situation, Hennigan said. Parents will be notified after nine days of absence.

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For semester or half-year courses, parents will be notified after two absences and students will be subject to failing the class after five absences.

Teachers will also have the power to determine if the student’s absence should be excused, Hennigan said. If the absence is approved, the teacher will have to provide makeup work, Hennigan said.

After being presented in a November school board meeting, the policy was open for public comment for 30 days; when it was presented to the board on Monday, it was noted the school system did not receive any public comments.

However, the school board received feedback during the meeting from a community member and board member about the new policy, who expressed concern that too many people are involved when it comes to a student’s mental health.

“There’s a section ‘A’ that states documentation from mental healthcare providers is required,” said community member Benjamin Heiser during the public comment section. “Then, it goes to section B, D and everybody gets involved from the psychiatrist to teacher. Now, every Tom, Dick and Harry knows about a kid having a mental issue.”

In response, Henningan referred to House Bill 118 that says schools must accept notes from mental and physical health providers while providing the requisite resources to the parent, which makes informing others involved necessary.

After the presentation, board member Diane Alvarez suggested to change the wording from “medical documentation of a student’s illness is required” to the parent providing the note to administration instead, so it is explicitly stated, she said.

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“The concern that I have is that the school will take over the counseling and therapy,” Alvarez said. “If the child has counseling and therapy through their parents, the parents should be in charge of their mental health treatment, and I don’t think the wording in the document is binding that parental involvement is maintained.”

Henningan responded to the concern by saying it is the counselor who ultimately makes the decision on the next steps of the process, and he reiterated that the school is obligated to contact the parent with resources rather than the child.

It should be noted the resources provided are external, meaning parents can choose which resource to use. The hope is for the counselor to send resources to parents if the student doesn’t have any prior concerns because they are obligated to, Henningan said.

“We need to leave the discretion with the counselors to figure out if they will or not meet with a student,” Hennigan said. “This is a common practice nationwide to not tell the parents every time they meet with a student.”

The board was split on the different arguments presented. Alvarez and Melissa Hahn, candidates who were endorsed by the parental rights political action group Moms for Liberty, argued this policy starts to infringe on a parent’s right to their child’s mental health.

Board Vice President Wade Sewell argued that this policy is in response to the struggling mental health of children today and would help the children who can’t find resources. Board members Joyce Herold and Carol Bruce said they believe having a counselor involved is very important since their assessment is based on prior experience with the child.

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“This is in no way is trying to take over any parenting responsibilities,” said Sewell. “This is to make sure that the children who don’t have a solid home life are being identified.”

Ultimately, the parents will be sent the resources regardless, but they are not forced to use them, Hennigan said. Also, the student and the counselor are not required to meet during this process, Hennigan said.

The board passed this policy by a 6-3 vote, with board members Alvarez, Hahn and Patrice Riccardi voting against it.

The board will hold a public input meeting on the fiscal 2024 budget on Jan. 17 at 6 p.m. in the Board Room of the A.A. Roberty Building, where regular school board meetings are held; it will also be livestreamed at hcps.org. The next business meeting is on Jan. 23.


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