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California Bill Would Restore Mental Health Funding In Elementary Schools

Above: Cherokee Point Elementary School Principal Godwin Higa walks with a student on the playground in 2012.

A San Francisco Bay Area lawmaker has introduced a state bill that would restore mental health care funding for young children who experience trauma. San Diego educators have relied on a patchwork of programs since the 2012 cut.

Aired 1/18/16 on KPBS News.

The conversation about childhood trauma is in vogue among U.S. educators. But increased awareness comes at a time when state funding for children's mental health care is flat.

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The bill would reopen state coffers to school-based programs that help children up to third grade who have trouble in school because of stress related to poverty, violence or family issues.

At Cherokee Point Elementary School in City Heights, Principal Godwin Higa has offered similar services through partnerships with local universities, clinics and Price Philanthropies.

He said social workers often send children who have been suspended multiple times at other campuses to Cherokee Point because of the extra support.

"I have cases here where students come from those type of situations that are doing very well," Higa said. "The behavior is changing and evolving more into more of a compassionate-type student."

At the time of the cut, the state reported nearly 80 percent of children who received services through its Early Mental Health Initiative improved their behavior on the playground and in class.

San Diego Unified still offers a similar program, but it's limited to six schools. The district also has a Mental Health Resource Center to screen students and pair them up with counseling and other programs in the community.

Higa said he gets help from the community and district for many of the issues that challenge his low-income student body, but said mental health options consistently fall short.

"There are a lot of services for homelessness or, you know, food, physical health. But there are very little mental health services," he said.

The bill's author, Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), said the program cost the state $15 million during its last year on the books.

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