A bipartisan bill to allow North Carolina officials to study whether and when to conduct mental-health screenings on public-school students cleared the House late Wednesday.
House Bill 75 was approved by a 113-0 vote on third reading. The Senate Rules and Operations committee will be the first to address the bill on the Senate side.
The idea for the study comes from a House Select committee on school safety.
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services would conduct the study, which would be due by Feb. 15, though bill sponsors said they would be amendable to moving up the timetable.
The screening “would identify school children ... at risk of harming themselves or others,” according to the bill.
The study would help determine at what age mental health screenings would be conducted, and when follow-up examinations should occur.
It is likely the first screening would involve all students, similar to eye and hearing examinations, said state Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, and the bill’s primary sponsor.
“We have nothing that determines if a child has a mental health concern .... to the point they could be contemplating harming themselves or others,” Torbett said.
“It is a touchy subject, and this study will help determine whether we need to do the screenings or not.
“This bill would bring smart people together for determining the appropriate criteria. I hope this study can help prevent tragedies by reviewing earlier.”
During the committee process, the bill was amended to expand the medical groups that DHHS could consult in conducting the study. Besides N.C. Medical Board and N.C. Psychology Board in the initial bill language, N.C. School Psychology Association, Appalachian State University Assessment, Support and Counseling Center were added.
The language also was amended from studying how to allow parents to opt out of the screenings to studying whether parents should be allowed to opt out.
Rep. Debra Conrad, R-Forsyth, and a co-sponsor, said that “certainly, the horrific school shootings were the catalyst for the formation of the committee to study ways to improve security and student safety in our public schools.”
The bill was introduced the same week that North Carolina was listed in a Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics’ report as being last in the nation for treating children with a diagnosed mental health disorder.
The treatment rate in North Carolina is 72.2 percent.
The study also would help determine how to keep the screening information confidential, the potential overall cost and cost per school, and whether to provide legal immunity to healthcare and mental health professionals conducting the screenings.
Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools said in a statement that it supports “additional resources and statewide support that would improve the mental health screening processes for children in our schools.”
“We currently screen students who present or show signs of harm to themselves or others,” WS/FCS said. “We already have in place district protocols using trained and qualified professionals for such work.
“While we would appreciate autonomy in finding the best screeners for our district, guidance across the state on best practices, formats and the creation of some uniformity or general guidelines in that process can only help benefit students statewide.
“Improving student mental health and emotional well-being is a primary focus within our work.”
Rep. Maryann Black, D-Durham and a bill co-sponsor, said she wants the study to factor in socioeconomic issues among students, particularly minorities.
“Children can be misdiagnosed if the wrong criteria are used, and we could run the risk of putting children on more medication than they need,” Black said.
Andy Hagler, executive director of Mental Health Association in Forsyth County, said that having specific language about a student being a harm to self and others was concerning in that “my thinking is that this is looking more at school violence — or circumventing school violence, which is not a bad thing — rather than all mental health issues affecting all children.”