Elected officials and advocates admonished city school administrators on Tuesday for not having a clear policy in place for handling agitated and disruptive children, and not providing adequate mental health services in schools to avoid forced trips to emergency rooms.
At a joint hearing called by the City Council's education and mental health committees, Department of Education officials reviewed the various programs available to students and acknowledged that there are not enough school-based mental health programs throughout the city to meet the needs of the growing number of children with mental health issues.
Council members said they called the meeting in response to recent news reports of children being sent to hospital emergency rooms or taken by the police when their schools could not cope with them. The New York Times reported that there were 868 calls to Emergency Medical Services in 2009-2010 from schools saying students were suicidal.
Robert Jackson, the chairman of the council's education committee, said that he had met with representatives from the five borough offices of Legal Services NYC, who told him there was an increase in the number of students sent by their schools to hospital emergency rooms because of behavior problems, although no one could provide him with exact numbers.
"I'm tired of hearing stories about children who are having tantrums or behavior problems being taken out of school by police or E.M.S.," Mr. Jackson said.
The council members heard from witnesses who spoke about growing mental issues among public school students and how budget cuts have meant a decrease in services. While there are a variety of mental health programs at many schools, with varying degrees of services, most schools have almost no services, and the Department of Education has scant numbers on what the need for such services is.
But the stories of two witnesses stood out among those who testified throughout the day.
Sonya Turner, whose daughter, Cashmiere, is a seventh grader at Intermediate School 151, testified about how the girl was taken by ambulance to Bronx Lebanon Hospital in October after school officials said she had threatened to hurt herself.
Ms. Turner told the council members that when the school called her, she quickly made her way to the school, a block from her home, and tried to see her daughter. But school officials would not allow her to see her or speak to her. "I was yelling, 'just give me my daughter.' I heard her crying and I said, 'mommy's here.'"
But when school officials still refused, and said that E.M.S. was on the way, Ms. Turner acknowledged to council members that she did not behave so well herself. She said she had spent more than a year trying, unsuccessfully, to get her daughter classified as needing extra help because she had fallen behind in school -- so much that at 15 years old she was still just in seventh grade. "I actually did go off on the assistant principal. I lunged at her and the safety officer had to restrain me.''
Councilman Jackson listened to her story and said, "I'm not happy. I would not be happy if that were my child they wouldn't let me talk to. They'd probably have to restrain me too," he said. "I'm just upset sitting here and I'm not even in that school."
Ms. Turner said the doctors at Bronx Lebanon attended to her daughter and declared her mentally fit to go back to school the next day. Ms. Turner, who is a member of the School Leadership Team at I.S. 151, said her daughter is not suicidal and has perfect attendance at school. She said she is working with the Legal Services NYC-Bronx to make sure the school provides her daughter with the proper services to help her.
"No child is perfect,'' said Tara Foster, a lawyer with Legal Services-Queens, who testified with Ms. Turner. "But for a parent to be told that their child has mental issues by someone who is not trained is totally inappropriate. The cost of sending a child to the E.R. is very high to all of us, in monetary and non-monetary terms.''
Later, the council heard from Randi Herman, the first vice president for the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents principals. She read an e-mail she received from a principal last week, about a student who became disruptive during state tests. The principal called E.M.S.
In the e-mail, the principal described the steps the boy's teacher took when he became too agitated to take the test. "The teacher tried to get him to walk around. He refused. He was getting louder and louder," Dr. Herman read in the e-mail.
She said the boy began punching the walls and kicking trash cans. When they isolated him in a room as they tried to get in touch with his mother, the boy began to throw desks and then began throwing things at the principal, telling her, "I want to kill you. I'm glad you're bleeding."
Dr. Herman said both the boy and the principal were taken to the emergency room, and the principal was treated for her injuries. They were both released that day.
"The principal and teachers are wondering whether or not this child is going to return to school, and if so, what services he'll have,'' Dr. Herman said. "The question is, who assesses the quality and the provisions of mental health services? It cannot be the school staff and it cannot be the principal."