How the Commonwealth's New Mental Health Act Impacts Schools

The Mental Health ABC Act: Addressing Barriers to Care was signed into law by Governor Baker in August, setting off a number of new actions to increase accessibility to care. While the bill addresses mental health at large, there are a number of sections that specifically impact the education system. Our team combed through the bill to dig into exactly how it will affect schools. Read on for our section-by-section breakdown of the new law.

Mental Health Promotion within School Districts (Section 4) 
This section of the law specifically outlines ways in which the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and other related departments will promote students’ behavioral and mental health through a student advisory committee, accessible statewide program of behavioral health supports, and central hub for promoting behavioral health in K-12 schools.

          1. Student advisory committee: This law will convene an advisory committee on mental health, with secondary school students filling at least one-third of the committee’s seats. The advisory committee will work with DESE to develop and implement school-based programs that address topics like eliminating the stigma associated with mental health care, substance use, and promoting positive coping behaviors. The work of the advisory committee will culminate in an annual report evaluating the effectiveness of programs and sharing best practices that promote behavioral health and wellness. 

          2. Program to support students: The law states that the Executive Office of HHS and DESE will develop and implement a statewide program to help school districts implement equitable, linguistically and culturally competent, developmentally appropriate behavioral health services and supports. This program will assist school staff and educators with planning, administering and managing behavioral health promotion, prevention and intervention services such as consultation and coaching. The law also calls for the creation of a central base of operations within the University of Massachusetts system to carry out the aforementioned program.


Student Disciplinary Actions 
The law reviews and recommends ways for school and district leaders to reconsider disciplinary actions, such as suspensions and expulsions, in exchange for restorative practices that center mediation, collaborative processing, and prioritizing the mental health of students.

          1. In early education and care settings (Section 18): The law calls for the development of performance standards that will prohibit or significantly limit the use of suspension and/or expulsion in all licensed early education and care programs. The performance standards will be developed with input from stakeholders (including professionals in the early education and child care field), and they will include benchmarks and goals that support children’s social and emotional development, such as steps to take prior to suspension and/or expulsion and requirements to assess and document a serious threat a student may pose to the safety of others.

          2. Considering ways to re-engage K-12 students (Section 29): At student meetings or hearings, the law states that “any principal, headmaster, superintendent, or decision-maker…when deciding consequences for the student, shall consider ways to re-engage the student and shall not suspend or expel a student until alternative remedies have been employed,” including, but not limited to, mediation, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and collaborative problem solving. 


Responding to Mental Health Crises
The law outlines expectations for school and district leaders responding to mental health crises on school campuses, the details of what emergency response plans must entail, and the creation of a new portal to share information on the accessibility of services for children requiring medical intervention.

          1. Emergency response plan (Section 28)The law establishes an expectation that each school committee and charter board of trustees “shall ensure the district has a written emergency response plan for medical and behavioral health crises for preventative and reactive procedures.” 

          2. Real-time data on number of beds available (Section 2): The law calls for the coordination of services for children and adolescents waiting for clinically appropriate health services through a confidential and secure online portal. Health care providers, facilities, and relevant state agencies can use this portal to access real-time data on children and adolescents waiting for medical care and the number of available treatment beds by geographic region.


Interagency Collaboration 
Several sections of the law highlight ways in which state agencies and departments will be expected to collaborate for more effective, accessible mental health care, services, data systems, and resources. 

          1. Dealing with complex cases (Section 3): The law establishes an interagency review team composed of representatives from various state education, public health, and other children- or youth-serving offices to collaborate on providing services in complex cases (including for children with multiple needs and/or disabilities). Children are referred to the review team by a parent or guardian, education or health care institution, or by the child themself. 

          2. Interagency Health Equity Team (Section 72): The law calls for the creation of an interagency Health Equity Team, composed of a wide range of state officials as well as external providers. Supported by the Office of Health Equity, this team shall study ways to improve access to, and the quality of, culturally competent behavioral health services.

As schools and districts grapple with identifying adequate, effective social-emotional and mental health resources for students across the Commonwealth, the ABC Act provides both short- and long-term policy provisions designed to impact the many ways social-emotional and mental health impacts learning. 


Check out the Thriving Minds initiative on the Rennie Center’s website for more information on how districts can build comprehensive school mental health systems. For additional information on how schools and districts can leverage federal ESSER funding to support social-emotional learning and mental health, check out the EdImpact Consortium.