AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Austin Independent School District was awarded $248,245 in federal grants to hire licensed mental health professionals (LMHP) to join its police department.
According to the district, the grant will fund two contracted, part-time LMHPs who will respond and assess high-risk crisis calls involving things like trauma, mental health and suicide.
The district believes the additional crisis intervention support will result in safer resolutions for everyone involved, while giving officers with live crisis intervention experience alongside a licensed professional. This comes as district police see a rise in mental health calls.
“Family violence and child abuse cases have gone up, and some of our calls are related to that, and other calls are just people who have a difficult time coping,” said Sgt. Wayne Sneed, who oversees the department’s mental health division.
Sneed has been advocating for this change for the past decade.
“The demand was just so high, and there weren’t enough resources in place,” Sneed explained. “This probably won’t meet all of the needs, but it will help out.”
Sneed said after the licensed clinicians assess crisis calls, they will determine if the child should go home or go to the hospital.
“We have strived at the district for the least restrictive environment, which means if [the student] can be better served by going home and being hooked into services in the community… then that’s the ultimate goal,” said Sneed.
The district says this project will also continue anti-biased and verbal de-escalation training among officers. In partnership with the LMHPs, the AISD Police Department hopes to develop training videos and materials and put them on an online platform for officer training.
The funding comes through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services as part of the Community Policing Development program.
Education Austin, the union representing the district’s teachers and staff, wants to see more mental health professionals but would like to see them under a different department within the district.
“We think its a good thing, but what we don’t want to see is to have them housed in the police department, because it could be triggering,” said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin.
Some AISD teachers who are also parents, like Laura Beck, are seeing resilience among students, but they are also seeing even more mental health challenges this school year, like social anxiety and behavioral issues.
“We are in a crisis mode now, and I would say the needs for the social, emotional and mental support is even greater than the academic support, which seems to be the focus,” Beck said.
In a newsletter, Austin ISD explained its tiers of mental health support for students, which starts with the school counselor.
Sgt. Sneed says he hopes these new staff members will be added by this school year.