This story is a staff report from The Paper.

Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus is urging New Mexico school districts to tap into available funds to provide mental health support to students and staff while also updating school safety plans.

“Students can’t learn, and teachers can’t teach if they don’t feel safe in their school environment,” Steinhaus said. “Complacency is not an option. We have been told that some young people in New Mexico and elsewhere are struggling privately with untreated but treatable mental health issues, including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation,” Steinhaus said. “We owe it to them and to ourselves to make sure they get the emotional and mental health supports they need and deserve.”

The PED says the need may be greatest in rural districts with limited access to existing services.

“No student should suffer untreated just because of the happenstance of where they live,” Steinhaus said. “School-based mental health services are essential for the well-being of our kids, our schools and our society.”

“We have an enormous responsibility to every New Mexican to make sure that any student can attend any school in New Mexico and feel a sense of belonging, safety, connectedness and that their identities are affirmed,” said Leslie Kelly, the Public Education Department’s behavioral health coordinator. “If those things are not present, they will not be able to learn and grow to their full potential. The time is now; we have no other choice.”

By law, every New Mexico school must have a site-specific Safe School Plan that includes procedures for responding to emergencies (crime, violence), natural disasters, disease outbreaks and accidents. Steinhaus said the time is now for those to be updated.

New Mexico and other states received three rounds of federal pandemic relief funds through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) Fund. For all three awards, 90% is distributed directly to school districts and state-chartered schools through sub-grants. That totals nearly $1.4 billion for New Mexico schools over three rounds.

The PED has approved all ESSER spending proposals related to social-emotional learning and mental health initiatives. Steinhaus also urged school leaders to consider legitimate ways to use those funds to improve building safety. Such uses are allowed if the need was brought on or exacerbated by COVID-19. The Public Education Department has previously approved spending to improve lighting or to install fences, security doors, surveillance cameras, or school communication systems.

Roswell Independent Schools Superintendent Brian Luck met with district staff Friday to identify his district’s security needs and determine if federal relief funds can be used to meet them.

“It’s beyond apparent that student safety is our parents’ No. 1 priority for their children,” Luck said. “We want to make sure we’ve turned every stone and grabbed every resource to make sure they are safe.”