Tensions heightened during the legislative session for the Committee on Education and Workforce Development as measures were discussed relating to mental health and school maintenance.
Sen. Milton Potter presented a bill to mandate age-appropriate mental health education and instruction in schools, focusing on mental health wellness, social connectedness, coping skills, self-esteem, and positive environments.
“Our public schools have a unique and critical role to play in supporting student mental health and well-being,” said Potter.
Dr. J. Zen Meservy, a psychiatrist at the St. Thomas East End Medical Center, was present to testify on behalf of the bill.
“Depression affects more than 264 million people worldwide,” he said. “It can occur at any time but on average, first appears in the late teens to mid-twenties.”
According to Dr. Meservy, there is a mental health crisis in the territory that needs awareness, recovery, and resiliency.
Of the bill, there were mixed reviews. Victor Somme III, assistant commissioner at the Virgin Islands Department of Education, testified on behalf of commissioner Raquel Berry Benjamin and said that though the department appreciates Sen. Potter for creating the bill, they do not support it in its current state.
“The main concern with this legislation is that it is vague and too general,” said Somme. “The legislation does not specify the details of Pre K-12 mental health.”
Senators agreed that the bill needs adjustment but that it is an important one to have.
“I think this is a very important discussion,” said Senate President Donna Frett-Gregory, “There’s a lot to contemplate around this and a lot to be included.”
Sen. Carla Joseph concurred that more should be added to the bill. “My concern is funding,” she said.
Senators and testifiers added elements that should be added to the bill. Behavioral health, testing, and differentiating and defining mental health from other forms of health like emotional health were mentioned. Frett-Gregory even mentioned that the departments for health and human services should have been present to provide feedback.
“I think it’s a good start,” said Sen. Kurt Vialet. But he added, “I don’t believe the Legislature should be in the business of mandating curriculum. That should be going through the Board of Education.”
Vialet referenced this year’s civil case against the DOE about teaching Virgin Islands history year-round in schools.
“We don’t want to create any other legislation that could result in future court cases,” said Vialet.
Sen. Kenneth Gittens said to the body to look for ways to support the measure as opposed to knocking it down.
“Let’s just take this in a different direction and try to work together to get things done, especially for our young people,” said Gittens.
“It’s not an attempt to fix the mental health problems in our territory, but it’s just an additional tool in the toolbox,” said Potter.
The bill was voted to be held in the Committee of Education and Workforce Development.
In addition, legislators addressed a bill to establish the Bureau of School Construction and Maintenance in the DOE and to appropriate $2.5 million dollars from the Virgin Islands Education Initiative Fund for it.
According to Somme, school facilities average 54 years of age, ranging from 18 to 177 years old.
“At minimum, the daily maintenance upkeep for all sites and school facilities requires an allocation of over $20 million dollars annually,” he said.
The DOE, as well as the Board of Education, supports the bill. The DOE, however, wanted to ensure that the commissioner of education would still be involved in some of the decision-making.
Somme said the bill should amend to “update the language to indicate that the director of the Bureau will report to the commissioner of education as opposed to the governor of the Virgin Islands.”
Bill sponsor, Senate Pres. Frett-Gregory was not fully in favor of the suggestion.
“The impetus is to drive our leaders in this territory to focus on our buildings. So, if we continue to bury it within education, we are going to continue to get what we get,” said Frett-Gregory.
More testimony was given that the DOE should not be involved with the bureau. Sen. Vialet said that “maintenance needs to stay with DOE” and added that “new school construction, renovation, design, can go with an authority.”
The bill did not pass.
Sens. Genevieve Whitaker, Kenneth L. Gittens, Carla Joseph, Milton Potter, Kurt Vialet, Janelle Sarauw, Donna Frett-Gregory, and Novelle Francis were present for the hearing.