The Cochise County Board of Supervisors voted 2-1 on Tuesday to approve $1,288,990 from the Arizona Department of Education for the county’s new Mental Health Consortium, which creates a team that will connect healthcare providers with school districts, administer training to educators, and works in tandem with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office’s Crisis Response Team.
“One of the biggest problems we have is that we don't have enough psychologists and other mental health professionals to work in the schools,” said Cochise County Superintendent of Schools Jacqui Clay.
The grant will fund four mental health specialists, four technicians, and a Mental Health Director. Clay said that the mental health director will be hired first. In the second year of the program, the mental health director will hire the rest of the personnel.
One of the main reasons for the program is to lower the cost of bringing mental health professionals into the schools.
“If you don't have those people on your staff to give those services, you're going to have to go outside of the staff,” said Clay. “And because a lot of those services are not located down here, we have to go to Tucson. We become a cash cow for a lot of organizations outside of Cochise County.”
According to Clay’s presentation, school districts in Cochise County are paying $800,000 a year for services. She added that school districts are legally required to provide these services.
Clay said that the county mental health consortium will help to lower the costs for schools to bring in providers for mental health, physical, occupational and speech therapies.
This consortium has been a project that developed over the summer, as Clay and other local school districts in Cochise County noted a shortage in mental health personnel and an increase in demand for services due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the program isn’t without its critics.
Jean Giuffrida, a Hereford resident, said that she’s against the program.
“When did it become the responsibility of our schools to provide mental health services to the staff and students anyway?” said Giuffrida. “I don't feel this is the obligation of the county.”
District 1 Supervisor Tom Crosby also expressed an argument against the program, saying that the need is already fulfilled by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office.
“I noticed that it is an example of financial backfilling, and there is some other better word for that,” said Crosby. “I can't remember what it is. And it grows government and it duplicates services by the sheriff's department.”
Clay clarified that the Sheriff’s office does not work directly with the schools in the county on mental health services, as that is her responsibility.
“By law, by statute, you have to have a psychologist look at all the records and then to help establish some sort of educational plan for that student,” said Clay. “That is by law. The sheriff’s department cannot do that.”
Clay said that the consortium is needed, as currently there is no structure or procedure to handle cases.
“We have a student in Apache School District, there was a body out there at the bus stop and apparently it was someone who was trying to cross the border,” Clay said. “The first thing the sheriff's department did was call me and then we called the chaplain. And then, we were trying to figure out ‘what do we do?’ There's nothing in my office for that. There's no processes. So, we figured we need processes because right now, all schools are every man for himself.”
With Supervisors Ann English and Peggy Judd voting in favor and Supervisor Crosby voting against, the program is set to run through 2024.