Policy Matters Blog

How Advocacy for Mental Health in Schools Impacted One Colorado School District

Aurora is Colorado’s third largest city that sits immediately east of Denver and is the center of Colorado’s refugee population. Aurora Public Schools (APS) is a richly diverse urban school district with approximately 38,000 students who come from more than 130 countries and speak over 165 different languages. Approximately 65% of our students qualify for free and reduced lunch and 42% speak English as a second language. In 2012, a tragic mass shooting occurred in a local Aurora movie theater that deeply impacted students, families, and community members. In 2019, Elijah Mcclain was killed after being placed in a chokehold by the police and administered sedation drugs by paramedics. Aurora is a community deeply touched by trauma, and in response to these horrific events the cry for more mental health support has been heard within our city, state, and school system.  

Since the theater shooting, the mental health needs of Aurora students and community became impossible to ignore. The Aurora community advocated for more mental health providers in our public schools and in response to this need, APS has significantly increased our mental health supports over the past decade. In 2018, Aurora citizens voted to pass a $35 million mill levy which provided funding to increase mental health support in schools in order to meet the national recommendations for ratios for school psychologists, school counselors, and school social workers. Since 2018 over 100 additional mental health provider positions (school psychologist, school social worker, and school counselor) have been added to our staff. Additionally, in response to the needs of our community in light of the tragic shooting, our school district created the position of a Director of Mental Health and Counseling and developed a specific mental health and counseling department comprised of school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors. Our unique mental health model has been developed to provide students, families, staff, and our community with mental health supports in a tiered system.

Our 250 person mental health and counseling department consists of a Director of Mental Health and Counseling (separate from the special education department), six different coaching teams, and school based mental health providers. The three mental health disciplines (school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors) are trained together, regardless of whether the provider’s primary focus is on supporting students with disabilities or general education students. The trainings that APS provides to the mental health and counseling department are based on needs assessment data from providers. We also have three leadership teams to address discipline specific needs of mental health providers based on their foundational training. Each school is staffed with a mental health team that develops a three tiered model to uniquely meet the needs of that school in regards to social emotional learning and behavior management. In addition to our school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors, our district also partners with two clinical agencies in order to provide a community therapist within every building. Our mental health and counseling department closely partners with our Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Education department; our district’s Welcome Center that serves newcomer, immigrant, and refugee families; our Mutli-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) department; and, our special education department. Additionally, our school psychologists, school social workers, and school counselors who have received formal crisis response training comprise a district crisis team and provide direct support to school buildings, students, and families who are impacted by a traumatic event.  

One of the most unique aspects of our district is the development of six individual coaching teams within our mental health and counseling department. In addition to our mental health teams in each school, our coaching teams are in schools every day. These coaching teams are described below:

  • Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) - Student Team
    • Takes individual referrals for student behavior that exhausts the resources of the building 
  • Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) - Systems Team
    • This team takes 3 pilot schools per year and trains staff in developmentally appropriate and neurobiologically sensitive interventions in order to create a neurobiologically sensitive environment school wide. 
  • Risk Response Team
    • Comprised of mental health providers that support threat assessments/safety plans/reentry plans and collaborate with MTSS and school discipline leaders
  • Team support team
    • Follow a sequence of onboarding/orientation/mentoring/coaching/supervision for new staff and early career mental health professionals
  • Sustainable Wellness Team
    • Focus on mental and physical wellness of students and staff 
    • The sustainable wellness team is comprised of 4 mental health providers that incorporate mindfulness CBT techniques into interventions with students and provide consultation to schools
    • 2 wellness coordinators who have backgrounds in physical health and nutrition; adult facing
  • AWARE Team
    • This team develops, pilots, and monitors the efficacy of district wide mental health initiatives such as the process for suicide risk assessments and safety planning; the neurosequential model program, Tier 1 social emotional learning curricula and universal screeners, community partnerships and referral systems, child sex abuse prevention, LGBTQI trainings, and advocacy.
    • An example of their advocacy work was getting school board approval for name and gender changes in our system for students

Although much work has been done to increase our mental health supports in APS, we will continue to advocate to meet the growing need of mental health supports for Aurora youth. Recently, our local Children’s Hospital Colorado declared a state of emergency for children after a 90% increase in mental health emergency visits compared to two years ago.

It is critical that school districts nationwide are staffed with enough mental and behavioral health providers to meet the needs of students, and NASP has resources to help in advocacy efforts to address this need. NASP’s key messages and talking points for school psychologists surrounding comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services provides targeted messaging for use at the local, state, or federal level. NASP also provides resources to support how to advocate for more school psychology positions and how to highlight the value of school psychologists. School buildings and districts can utilize the NASP Practice Model Implementation Guide to help bring school psychological services into closer alignment within the roles delineated in the NASP practice model.