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NJ: 'Psych clearances' required for kids with discipline problems

Updated: Jan 10, 2023

Jan 2, 2023, NJ,com: More N.J. schools requiring ‘psych clearances’ for kids to stay in the classroom

The Bayonne mother wasn’t surprised to get the call in October that her third grader had a meltdown at school — again.

Since the start of the school year, the 8-year-old boy had regularly lashed out at classmates and teachers and refused to do his school work. This time, he was kicking, spitting and throwing things in class, his mother was told.

The boy, who has autism and other disabilities, had just transferred into a new elementary school and was not adjusting well to his general education class, his mother said. He needed more specialized help than the Hudson County school district was providing, she said.

When the Bayonne mother arrived to pick him up after his latest meltdown, school officials, police and EMTs were waiting for her.

School administrators said the 8-year-old wasn’t suspended. But, he could not return to his public school classroom until he got a “clearance” letter from a psychiatrist saying the boy was not a danger to himself or others.

Until then, he had to stay home, his mother was told.

“They basically said, per their school policy, the guidance counselor would have to come with me to Hoboken hospital if we took him there — or they offered for the Bayonne Board of Ed to set up a psychological evaluation for clearance,” said the mother, who asked that her family’s name not be used to protect her son’s privacy.

A growing number of New Jersey schools are requiring students to get mental health evaluations — often referred to as “psychiatric clearances,” “risk assessments” or “clearance letters” — in order to return to class after discipline incidents, advocates say.

Although psychiatric evaluations have been required in the past for students who showed signs they were suicidal or in a mental health crisis, parents and advocates say more schools began requiring the assessments after classes resumed after the COVID-19 pandemic. In some cases, students are being told to get mental evaluations after getting in fights or making statements that school officials believe are threatening….

Whatever the reason, parents say the growing use of psychiatric clearances is a problem because New Jersey has almost no rules about how they can be used in schools. Who does the psychiatric evaluation? Who pays for it? How long can a student be removed from school? Are they required to have at-home tutoring or virtual lessons while they wait for an evaluation?

Organizations for families with kids with disabilities say they’ve seen a spike in the number of parents looking for help after their children were barred from school until they got psychiatric clearances.

“We’ve seen a huge uptick since we’ve gotten back post-COVID. The return to school increased the calls that we’re getting from families. The last time I checked the calls were up 433%,” said Peg Kinsell, institutional policy director at the SPAN Parent Advocacy Network, a statewide group that advocates for students with disabilities.

Legislation recently introduced in Trenton would require schools to report for the first time how many students they are barring from returning to school while they await psychiatric clearance. But the proposed law would not mandate any rules or regulations detailing when psychiatric clearances could be required.

The legislation is part of a bill that would also require schools to tell parents when their children are being locked into “quiet rooms” — a controversial practice that uses unfurnished, closet-sized rooms to seclude students when teachers say they are too out-of-control to remain in class.

An NJ Advance Media investigation, “Inside the quiet rooms,” published in June found at least 1,150 New Jersey students were forced into seclusion spaces in recent years for alleged misbehavior. The report found many schools were locking young children — including disabled students with a limited ability to communicate — into isolation closets for relatively minor offenses, such as refusing to do assignments, fighting with classmates or taking off their shoes in class.

Advocates say it is often the same group of vulnerable students that many schools are requiring to get psychiatric clearances to return to school, even though getting the mental evaluations is sometimes difficult for families….

State Department of Education officials said they had no information about any state rules related to when psychiatric clearances can be required by schools or how many students are kept out of class each year.

“The New Jersey Department of Education does not collect or maintain any such statistics,” said Shaheed Morris, a spokesman for the department.

“The reality is that we have no idea exactly how many children are removed from school ‘off the books’ because school districts do not include these removals in reports to the public. But we do know that protection and advocacy agencies represent hundreds of such children per year and that these removals are harmful to them,” the report said.

In New Jersey, the legislation that would require schools to report to the state how often they are requiring psychiatric clearances for students to return to school has not come up for a vote yet before the full Senate or Assembly.

The Senate bill, S3027, was introduced by state Sen. Vin Gopal, D-Monmouth, head of the Senate education committee. It was passed unanimously by the education committee, but has been awaiting a hearing before the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee since September. The Assembly version of the bill, A4675, was introduced at the same time, but has not advanced. In Bayonne, the third grader had been out of school for nearly two months as the holiday break began at his elementary school last week.

He was finally seen by the psychiatrist chosen by the school district at an office in Bayonne last month. But, the evaluator barely spoke to the boy, according to his mother, who was in the room during the visit. …


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