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'Dangerous' cut to mental health services at N.J. schools is restored

"We fought alongside parents, teachers and administrators to undo these dangerous budget cuts, and we won."
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A statewide program in New Jersey recognized as a lifeline for tens of thousands of students for offering in-school mental health counseling and crisis intervention appears to have been saved.

After a coordinated effort by students, their families and school administrators to rally behind the School Based Youth Services Program — and an appeal to politicians to rescue it from the state budget chopping block — lawmakers in Trenton, the capital, adopted an appropriations bill Thursday that would restore about $15 million toward helping the initiative, which is also supported by matching federal funds.

The school-based program faced elimination this month in Gov. Phil Murphy's fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.

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The overall budget was a deal between Murphy, a Democrat, and Democratic legislative leaders, and he's expected to approve the latest proposal by Oct. 1.

Restoration of the school-based program, which operates in nearly 100 of the more than 500 school districts in New Jersey, many of them lower-income districts and communities of color, has been widely backed by both Democrats and Republicans.

While the governor's budget proposal sought to cut the program, the state Department of Children and Families, which helps to administer it, had recognized that the state is in "tough budget times" and that students could still be served by another mental health and behavioral program, the Children's System of Care. That program, however, is not in schools.

Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Families, said in an email Friday that "any added or restored funds for the department is appreciated because it supports programming and services to N.J.'s children and families."

Following public uproar to the proposed cut, Murphy suggested two weeks ago that he would support a way for the school-based program to remain funded in the budget.

Christine Lee, a Murphy spokeswoman, said the governor "is proud that the budget has restored the School Based Youth Services Program that will continue to provide critical services and support to better address the mental health needs of New Jersey's young people."

State Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican, was among lawmakers who called for finding the money to keep the program operating.

"It made no sense for Gov. Murphy to propose cutting these important counseling and support programs for kids when they need them most," Bucco said in a statement. "We fought alongside parents, teachers and administrators to undo these dangerous budget cuts, and we won."

Murphy had said New Jersey faces a $5.7 billion shortfall in its upcoming budget, worsened by a decline in revenue amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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But advocates for mental health services say this is precisely the time not to abandon something that can be an invaluable resource for young people struggling during a school year fraught with uncertainty.

Suzanne Sarner, the director of the program at Sussex County Technical School, a high school of nearly 800 students, said this school year began with students grappling with anxieties and depression because of the pandemic and Covid-19. Some of them saw family members die from the disease.

Sarner added that many students have parents who are squeaking by financially, and feared that without the school-based program, the children will lose out on sufficient mental health counseling, as well as programs that deal with suicide prevention and sexual assault awareness.

While she remains hopeful that the program can continue uninterrupted, she said, the stress and desperation felt by families who count on the services has weighed heavily on her high school program's five-person staff.

"On the personal level," she said, "I was heartbroken."