MA Survey Finds Students With Emotional Needs Increasing

The Massachusetts Youth Health Survey (YHS), provided to students in grades 6-12, is conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in collaboration with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in randomly selected public middle and high schools biannually. DESE and DPH have just released the most recent statistics (available here), from a survey conducted in 2015, which shows an overall increase in students reporting emotional needs.

At a recent Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education (MCLE) conference, I presented about the importance of public school districts supporting students with emotional needs and authored an article on the subject. During the presentation, I discussed the 2013 YHS statistics – the most up to date statistics available at the time – and that nonprofits and special education attorneys have seen an increase over the years in calls about students who are not receiving appropriate services in school. Attorneys on both sides of special education disputes, educational experts, and advocates will not be surprised to learn about the increasing number of students reporting emotional needs in the 2015 statistics.

The 2015 YHS data shows an increase in high school students who reported feeling “sad or hopeless.” In 2013, 23.8% of high school students surveyed reported feeling “so sad or depressed daily for at least two weeks during the previous year that they discontinued usual activities.” In 2015, the percentage increased to 27.4% – the highest percentage reported since 2003.

In 2013, 12% of high school students surveyed reported that they “seriously considered attempting suicide” during the 12 months before the survey. In 2015, that percentage increased to 14.9% – also, the highest percentage reported since 2003.

Statistics also show an increase in the number of high school students who “made a plan about how they would attempt suicide” and those that attempted suicide.

As I wrote in the article for MCLE, entitled A Student’s Right to Emotional Progress:

The legal requirement for public school districts to provide appropriate services to students with emotional needs is well settled in Massachusetts. However, ‘what is old is new again’ as legislators, policy makers, hearing officers, and advocates continue to remind school districts of this important obligation. 

In recent years, research about the significant impact of emotional well-being on both immediate and long-term learning has gained traction in Massachusetts, influencing legislative and policy reform. Data suggests that this momentum might also be fostered by the volume of calls and complaints by families whose children with emotional challenges are not well supported by their local school districts …

The mandate to evaluate and provide appropriate services to students who have emotional needs is clear, and the importance of doing so in a timely and effective way is critical.

Click below to download the full text of my MCLE article.

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Why Emotional Progress Matters

The U.S. Department of Education (“DOE”) recently reminded school districts about the importance of evaluating and providing special education services to students considered “twice exceptional.” This group includes individuals who have a disability and are also intellectually gifted. Of note, the DOE expressed concern about supporting students with emotional disabilities.

According to the DOE’s memorandum:

“In spite of the guidance provided in [a previous letter], we continue to receive letters from those who work with children with disabilities with high cognition, particularly those with emotional disturbance or mental illness, expressing concern that some local educational agencies (LEA) are hesitant to conduct initial evaluations to determine eligibility for special education and related services for children with high cognition.”

In its letter, the DOE sternly advises school districts to evaluate students suspected of having a disability, including emotional disabilities, regardless of cognitive strengths.

Anecdotally, over the last few years, I have seen a significant increase in referrals and calls from families who have experienced this “hesita[tion] to conduct initial evaluations” first-hand. Often school districts rely on academic achievement (e.g., passing grades, MCAS) as evidence that a student does not require initial evaluation or services, even when the student is falling apart in all other domains.

School districts wait to evaluate, services are delayed, and often a student’s unaddressed social and emotional needs become increasingly significant. I have seen school districts attempt to shift and avoid responsibility, insisting that emotional disabilities are not a school district’s responsibility – even when a student is struggling to attend classes and is socially isolated. Time and time again, I have seen these delays result in self-harm and hospitalizations. Sometimes these delays prevent a student from learning in a less restrictive setting, and result in the need for a residential placement.

Last week, I had the privilege of presenting to families at The Massachusetts Resiliency Center about their special education due process rights. The Resiliency Center is an organization that provides resources to survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing. I was struck by the stories I heard about students who are not receiving support in school despite significant emotional needs.

The mandate to evaluate and provide services to students who have emotional needs is clear, and the importance of doing so in a timely way is critical.


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Guide: Transition and Mental Health Needs

The Parent and Professional Advocacy League recently released a helpful (and free) guide, Moving to Young Adult Life: A Legal Guide for Parents of Youth with Mental Health Needs.

The guide covers topics such as financial decisions, health care options, and guardianship. It is certainly worth a read, and provides a useful roadmap.

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