Austin school district awarded $4.5 million for mental health clinics

5:51 p.m Tuesday, Dec. 19, 2017 Local
Austin schools Superintendent Paul Cruz talks about the latest state accountability ratings for school districts on Aug. 15. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The Austin school district has received $4.5 million to open mental health centers in 22 elementary schools in the eastern part of the city during next semester.

The one-year pilot program could be extended, depending on the program’s efficacy and need, among other factors.

Mental health centers currently operate in 18 middle and high schools in an effort to help students who have experienced trauma.

The latest grant comes from federal money administered by Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and will pay for two staff members at each of 22 elementary schools to provide therapy services. The grant also will pay for identifying victims, teacher development and other social services for students.

“This grant will help ensure that these young students’ lives are not defined by the crimes they have experienced but with the right help move on to be happy and productive,” Abbott said in a news release.

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The district chose the 22 schools — all of which feed into Akins, LBJ and Lanier high schools — because they’re located in a part of the city that a 2012 study by Dell Children’s Medical Center of Central Texas and Children’s Optimal Health identified as having a high incidence of child abuse and neglect. The area includes high-crime neighborhoods and a lack of transportation and social services for children.

Without mental health services, children with trauma often fail to develop social and emotional behaviors on par with their peers, and are less likely to properly cope with stress, manifesting in behaviors like aggression and avoidance, according to school district officials.

“By providing mental health services on campus, we are able to identify, support, and efficiently provide clinical treatment for our students experiencing a variety of mental health issues,” Tracy Spinner, assistant director of comprehensive health services for the district, said in a news release.

Austin was the only school district chosen for the pilot program.

The Austin school board on Monday approved contracting with Vida Clinic to provide the mental health services in the pilot. The clinic has operated at Anderson, Bowie and Crockett high schools.

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