About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.

School psychologists are in a constant state of triage because of a shortage in special education teachers and behavioral health specialists.

We’re all guilty of creating a disconnect between what we say we value and where we actually commit our resources. So it’s understandable that the Legislature tends to do the same. Yet, where youth mental health is concerned, that disconnect is unacceptable.

According to Hawaii Health Matters, 1 in 3 Hawaii public school students in grades six to 12 felt so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some of their usual activities. Less than 25% of those teens received the help they needed.

The Hawaii Department of Education says it is committed to ensuring “every student has what they need to thrive and reach their full potential” and prioritizes “access to mental health supports for all students through either school-based programs or community-based partners.” It’s a laudable mission that’s clearly going unfulfilled.

The disconnect is something that keeps Alec Marentic, president of the Hawaii Association of School Psychologists, using his free time to advocate for more mental health support in public schools 

Marentic is one of 61 school psychologists employed by the Department of Education. Like most of his colleagues, he holds a graduate degree that required training in both psychology and education as well as supervised field experience in a school setting.

School psychologists like Marentic have unique expertise in precisely what we need – providing comprehensive mental and behavioral health services for youth at school.

Yet, last week, he could only see two students because most of his time was spent in meetings with adults discussing student evaluations and legally mandated Individualized Education Programs for students with special education needs.

DOE Department of Education building.
The state Department of Education says it is committed to providing “access to mental health supports for all students through either school-based programs or community-based partners.” But those efforts are falling short. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Now, these plans are important to the DOE as Hawaii remains under pressure to comply with the Felix consent decree, a settlement that followed a 1993 federal lawsuit that accused the state of failing to provide adequate mental health services to students with special needs. According to the Hawaii State Teachers Association, the state could face another lawsuit if we don’t hire more school professionals soon.

Because the state has not solved its shortage of special education teachers or behavioral health specialists, school psychologists like Marentic are in a constant state of triage.

As Marentic explained, when school psychologists are responsible for so many evaluations, “a lot of the needs around mental health are things that we can’t do or are not able to do at the level that our schools need.” In other words, school psychologists, who each support an average of five schools, are primarily tasked with helping the Department of Education fulfill its legal mandates instead of providing the prevention and intervention services that they’ve also trained for.

Approximately 10% of public school students are enrolled in special education. These students have been chronically underserved by Hawaii’s school system, which worsened during the pandemic.

This year, the Legislature added $25 million across two years to provide applied behavior analysis for students with significant behavioral and social-communication deficit. That’s a start, but if specialists remain overwhelmed and underpaid, recruitment won’t be easy.

If the DOE does manage to hire enough staff to satisfy its responsibilities under the Felix consent decree and, more importantly, fulfill its moral obligation to special education students, it still won’t be enough for the students suffering from depression who are not enrolled in special education. At a minimum, those students make up 23% of Hawaii’s public school population in grades eight to 12.

Alec Marentic is president of the Hawaii Association of School Psychologists. (HASP)

The Legislature’s $5 million per year appropriation to fund mental health services for public school students isn’t likely to rectify the situation given the DOE is also contending with a $261 million operating budget shortfall over the next two fiscal years.

Money isn’t the only obstacle to hiring enough school mental health professionals. In the case of school psychologists, the state’s outdated licensing model is also preventing recruitment. Puzzlingly, the Legislature hasn’t done anything about it.

Hawaii is the only state without certification or licensure for school psychologists. From a recruitment standpoint, this means that anyone who works as a school psychologist in Hawaii won’t be able to count their years of experience if they move to another state. When combined with lower-than-average salaries and excessive responsibilities, Hawaii is an unattractive option. 

Leslie Baunach, the National Association of School Psychologists’ delegate to Hawaii and a former DOE employee, has been advocating for licensure at the Legislature since she first started working in Hawaii 13 years ago. But she said, “It just feels like hitting a dead end every year.”

Particularly frustrating, Baunach explained, is that legislators and professional associations like the Hawaii Psychological Association often appear initially supportive. However, pushback from clinical psychologists, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, and others tend to dampen that support as legislative sessions move forward.

School psychologists’ quest for licensure is reminiscent of past pushes to license marriage and family therapists, grant prescriptive authority for clinical psychologists and expand nurse practitioners’ scope of practice.

While, on one hand, it’s reasonable to be protective of your role and its responsibilities when you’ve spent over a decade training. I get why a doctorate-level degree holder wouldn’t want to cede any of their territory to someone who has a different degree. On the other hand, the state desperately needs people to fill mental health positions, particularly in our public schools.

Until the Legislature takes action on licensing school psychologists, the state will remain limited in its ability to recruit and retain a mental health workforce in our public schools. Further, we’ll continue to miss out on federal Medicaid funding for school psychologists, which can’t be accessed without a licensure program.

Every other state has taken action to broaden their scope of licensed youth mental health practitioners. In California, 12 different types of professional licensees are eligible for Medicaid reimbursement in schools. Hawaii only allows three. We need more options if we’re going to build our workforce and reverse our negative youth mental health trends.

As Marentic puts it, “We need state leadership in the DOE, at the Legislature, and in our union to start, you know, doing things, taking the information they have, taking the data they have, and implementing things. We’ve been stuck in this runaround where we’re passed off for so many years. And nothing gets done, and nothing is going to change. We need them to be our leaders in that regard and create those changes.”

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.


Read this next:

Mental Health Services For Youth On Maui Receive A Funding Boost


Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.

Contribute

About the Author

Beth Fukumoto

Beth Fukumoto served three terms in the Hawaii House of Representatives. She was the youngest woman in the U.S. to lead a major party in a legislature, the first elected Republican to switch parties after Donald Trump’s election, and a Democratic congressional candidate. Currently, she works as a political commentator and teaches leadership and ethics at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach her by email at bfukumoto@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

I see so, so many articles about the need for mental health care for children and adults in Hawaii, but nothing being done to help make it any easier for clinicians to meet the demand. Everything from GE tax on medical services that cost clinicians thousands of dollars per year to pay out of pocket or pass on to clients, to low paying and restrictive insurance companies with opaque rules, draconian and wildly overwrought documentation requirements, insurmountable red tape, impossible to navigate systems utterly disinterested in mental health care or making it easier to navigate or deal with - the system screams at mental health practitioners that it doesn't care about mental health, doesn't appreciate what mental health practitioners do, and that tells us clearly that at the end of the day, as with most other things, the government also doesn't care about mental health of its citizens.

gumpster · 2 months ago

I know easier said than done, but we have to (as a society) reevaluate what is causing all these mental health issues in the youth. Social media, cyberbullying, and a stressed out family life sound like likely culprits. How do we get to the root of the problem?

potagee808 · 2 months ago

Also, these professionals end up working a lot of hours because schools are understaffed/underfunded so their principals have them doing things like helping with yearbooks or graduations after school hours, or any of a myriad of time consuming things outside of their chosen line of work. Coupled with the typical Hawai`i low pay and long hours and high cost of living DOE gets a fair amount of turnover.

Frank_DeGiacomo · 2 months ago

Join the conversation

About IDEAS

IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.

Mahalo!

You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.