District officials have sought to elevate and expand the role of mental health services on campus in recent years, calling it important at a time when depression and anxiety are prevalent and often go untreated. Alongside state-mandated suicide prevention training for school staff, the district spends more than $1.3 million on therapy services.
Harding told the Voice that the status of therapists in the district has evolved over the years, first starting as contractors without medical and retirement benefits — similar to a plumber coming in to fix a leak and getting compensated for the work done. This was the district's practice going back at least a decade, despite the employees being asked to come back year after year to provide an important service for hundreds of students.
The practice of hiring licensed therapists on an individual contract basis "as-needed" comes from a time when therapists had an entirely different focus. Associate Superintendent Mike Mathiesen said district-hired therapists were typically focused on mental health services required to support special education students with Individualized Educational Plans (IEPs). As the scope of the job changed to support student wellness more broadly, it was clear that therapists were on campus working nearly full time.
In interviews for an in-depth story on youth mental health services last year, clinical services staff told the Voice that referrals for mental health counseling in the district exploded from 200 in 2013 to more than 800 in 2018, with many students seeking resource-intensive services rather than prevention and early intervention. Shortly before school started in August, a district student died by suicide.
District administrators began shifting gears three years ago, when the district's hired therapists were converted to what state education code refers to as "professional experts." The upshot of that decision was that district therapists would receive both medical and retirement benefits, essentially doubling the cost of each hire. Contracted therapists had previously been paid about $75,000, whereas today the total cost per employee now falls between $153,000 to $192,000 each year.
Adding therapists to the California School Employees Association (CSEA) bargaining unit was the final step towards turning therapists into permanent employees, which was done on the advice of the district's legal counsel. Harding said therapists really can't be considered contractors any longer, nor should they.
"We need to treat them like district employees, because they are," Harding said.
During the 2017-18 school year, the district budgeted $1,322,790 for mental health-related services, of which about $1 million was paid for out of the district's discretionary funds. The rest was paid for through a $160,000 grant from the El Camino Healthcare District and a $130,000 contribution by the Mountain View-Los Altos High School Foundation. The nonprofit Community Health Awareness Council also provides counseling services through its workforce of interns, which is subsidized in part by the nonprofit's own funds.
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