Dallas County

Dallas ISD Offers Mental Health Options for Students, but Many Texas School Districts Don't

Many Texas ISD's lack sufficient mental health resources for students.
Many Texas ISD's lack sufficient mental health resources for students. Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash
The new school year is underway across Texas, and it's gotten off to a shaky start in some places: staffing problems, school bus delays and ongoing culture-war controversies have all made headlines.

But some advocates are sounding the alarm on another problem: Only three months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, which killed 19 kids and two teachers, many districts don't have enough mental health resources.

Gov. Greg Abbott has made mental health services a focal point of his policy response to the Uvalde massacre, but more than half of all Texas school districts still have no access to mental health resources, according to CBS News. Many others don't have enough.

Rena Honea, president of the Dallas Alliance-AFT teachers union, said mental health services in schools are more important than ever, adding that the pandemic and mass shootings, among other problems, have "traumatized many students."

"For students to be successful, the needs of the total child must be addressed for them to learn, grow and succeed," she said by email.

According to the Texas Education Agency (TEA), one of every six school-aged children experiences impairments stemming from mental illness, a number that grows the older the students get.

Gov. Abbott has largely blamed school shootings on mental illness. He instructed the TEA to “provide strategies to make Texas public schools safer,” but so far that hasn’t translated into very many concrete resources for students in Texas schools.

Abbott and other Texas officials have promised to spend $100 million in state funds to aid in school safety, but the Texas Tribune recently reported that only $10.5 million is to be spent on access to telemedicine or treatment for at-risk youth. (Meanwhile, some $50 million is slated for bullet-resistant shields for school officers.)

Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine (TCHATT) is a telehealth program that helps school districts with students’ behavioral health and provides access to mental health services. Many school districts still don't have access to the program, but Dallas ISD offers access to these services. Tracey Brown, Dallas ISD's executive director of mental health services, says the district has 205 team members on staff, including 165 licensed mental health clinicians.

"Dallas ISD has one of the most unique school-based mental health programs in the country," Brown said by email, explaining that the district provides "school-based and clinic-based psychotherapeutic services to address students' needs."

DISD also offers students mental health resources like hotlines and text lines they can contact as well as links to forms they can fill out if they need behavioral support, psychiatric services or resources for physical health like vaccines.

Still, the state of Texas is in the red when it comes to the student-to-psychologist ratio, according to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (The NASP says there should be a ratio of 500 students to every school psychologist, but the number in Texas was 2,000-to-1, as of January 2022.)

Only seven other states (New Mexico, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia) and Puerto Rico have a ratio of around that size.

Union leader Honea believes that Texas districts are doing what they can, or at least what they can afford, but she said that there is always room for improvement. She also thinks the people on the ground doing the actual work know best how to fix a problem.

“Legislators must listen to the people that are in our schools and doing the actual work," she said. "The lobbyists and non-educators are dictating what happens in schools, and the outcomes are not what they could be if the laws were based on real school situations and needs. School districts must make students the actual real priority in actions and not just words."
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Kate Pezzulli, an editorial fellow for the Observer, is a graduate student at the Mayborn School of Journalism at UNT. Besides storytelling, she likes sailing, working on Jeeps, camping, potting and baking. Voted No. 1 friend in an apocalypse.
Contact: Kate Pezzulli