The Legislature will require the Education Department to train public school counselors in "grief and stress counseling" if a bill approved in committee Friday becomes law.
The new training mandate [Bill 31-0279] sponsored by Sens. Marvin Blyden, Justin Harrigan, Neville James and Kurt Vialet does not have a funding source, calling into question if it can be carried out if enacted into law.
"Grief counseling will offer support in challenging times; therefore, it is important the people provide grief counseling through school counselors," said Blyden, introducing the bill.
"Grief counseling is a form of therapy that seeks to help bereaved students to explore and process their stressing and confusing feelings,” Blyden said. “It is a support system that is invaluable. Trained grief and stress counselors will help our students to cope with denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, which are all familiar symptoms of grief," he said.
Assistant Education Commissioner Charmaine Hobson-Johnson testified that grief and stress counseling is important and that school counselors already deal with the subject as part of their educational background.
"We realize our communities are plagued with a multitude of hardships and tragedies that affect our students and staff and have a profound impact on our schools and students alike," Hobson-Johnson said. The Education Department endorses ongoing training and "wholeheartedly agrees with the spirit and intention of this bill," she said.
"However, the proposed legislation falls substantially short of its goal," she said.
Hobson-Johnson objected that the bill required certification rather than training, saying that would cost a lot more money and time. Certification may take 60 hours and is not necessary for professional counselors who have a master’s degree or more background in counseling, she said, adding that no U.S. jurisdiction requires it.
Senators later addressed this concern by removing the certification requirement.
Hobson-Johnson also said the bill "fails to identify and establish a revenue stream to fund the proposed mandate" and asked $20,000 per year be appropriated and budgeted to the purpose. She said the department could support the bill with funding for training and training resources.
Several senators spoke about the incredible stresses many V.I. public school students face, up to and including seeing family members violently killed.
Sen. Myron Jackson recalled news accounts from several months ago about a student who was filmed being pushed or falling off a second-floor balcony at Charlotte Amalie High School.
Vialet, a former teacher, recounted having a class of 10 emotionally disturbed students, of whom eight had a parent who was killed. One young man he dealt with had seen his father actually killed and was profoundly affected, he said.
"It is now common among our students that they had actually seen somebody dead on the floor," Vialet said. School is often the refuge from what is happening at home, he added.
"If you read the obituaries of those individuals being killed, they have six, seven, eight, nine children" who are all affected and in the school system, Vialet said.
Hobson-Johnson agreed, saying student stress level had "gone up several notches."
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said he felt the teachers’ unions and V.I. Board of Education should weigh in on the bill before it is passed. He also said he has gotten messages from education professionals saying they did not know about the bill and wanted to give some input, saying "they too feel slighted and rightfully so."
"While I do support the intent of the sponsor, I must say the bill before us is truly vague … and unfunded," Gittens said.
Blyden responded, saying he would like the bill to be sent for more consideration in the Rules and Judiciary Committee and that those entities could testify on amendments at that time. Gittens chairs the Rules and Judiciary Committee.
Hobson-Johnson said she applauded Blyden for bringing the bill forward and that she hopes "that as Sen. Gittens said, we do the footwork to do the very best for our counselors in the days ahead,."
Gittens moved to have the bill held for amendment but the motion died for lack of a second.
Voting to send the bill on to Rules for more consideration were Jackson, Harrigan and Vialet. Gittens and Sen. Jean Forde voted no. Sens. Positive Nelson and Tregenza Roach were absent.
The V.I. public school system currently has several areas of instruction, from swimming to real estate appraisal, mandated by previous legislative acts, which it is partially unable to fund and carry out, calling into question whether a new, unfunded mandate would have the mandated effect. (See Related Links below)