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Mental health absences a gray area in Kansas, Missouri schools

Other states pushing for excused absences
Winnetonka High School shows off new look
Posted at 4:52 PM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 18:28:52-05

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For many high school students, the stresses of everyday life, combined with schoolwork and the increased pressure of learning during a pandemic, can be overwhelming. While other states have passed bills making mental health days an excused absence for students, the issue remains a gray area in both Kansas and Missouri, left up to individual school districts.

41 Action News recently went in-depth to look at how other states are putting an increased focus on teens' mental health.

"When you realize that you actually are feeling ways that you've never felt before, experiencing different things, it can be even worse," said Katie Hernandez, a junior at Olathe North High School.

For Hernandez, going to school can sometimes seem impossible.

"I got diagnosed with clinical depression and I didn't know what was going on with my brain," she said. "I know I was feeling the ways I was feeling."

Hernandez said there are days where the stress from school and life can be a lot to handle.

"What I was seeing in myself was that I was stressing myself so much to the point that I was making my body sick," Hernandez said. "So I couldn't go to school, I really couldn't, and sometimes I had to go to school."

In Kansas and Missouri, if a child is sick, it's an approved school absence. But the distinction isn't as clear when a student is dealing with mental illness.

For example, in Missouri, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education says those policies are created by each individual district.

In Kansas, the state Department of Education states that statute "K.S.A. 72-3121(c)(2) authorizes (the local) board of education to adopt rules for determination of valid excuse for absence from school and for determination of what shall constitute a 'significant part of a school day' for the purpose of this section."

In Lawrence Public Schools, the Board of Education policy "does not prevent a parent or guardian from excusing their child from school due to mental illness," according to a district spokesperson. But staff would need to follow up with family members to figure out a plan of support for the student.

Like Lawrence, the Kansas City, Kansas, public school district specifically lists "illness" as an excused absence, but not mental illness.

Over the past two years, a handful of states — including Oregon, Maine, Colorado and Virginia — have approved bills that make mental or behavioral health an approved school absence, according to The Associated Press. In Utah, lawmakers passed a bill in 2018 that allows students to take time off for mental illness.

41 Action News recently spoke with Utah lawmakers, who said that since changing the state statute, they're seeing a decrease in the state's suicide rate. They attribute it not only to the new legislation, but also to an increased push for students to get the help they need.

"We are sending a message to kids that you matter, that your mental health matters, and there's going be some resources to help take care of you," Republican Utah state Rep. Mike Winder said.

This year, Winder is hoping to add another layer by allowing students to miss class for mental health reasons with House Bill 81. Under the proposed legislation, students could be excused from school for mental illness reasons.

"By adding mental health, the state statute goes even one step further. If you have a crisis in your home and a panic attack and you just can't, you're at the breaking point, this gives you an opportunity to stop and catch your breath," Winder said. "It doesn't get you out of that test or your schoolwork."

Some of his fellow lawmakers believe all states need to find additional ways to help their youth.

"America's children in some cases are killing themselves, and we can't ring the alarm too loudly," Republican Utah state Rep. Steve Eliason said. "We know at any given point, one in five Americans are struggling with a mental illness and that the majority of mental illnesses first manifest themselves in the teenage years."

41 Action News reached out to several districts in the Kansas City metro to see if they would be on board if similar legislation were passed in Kansas or Missouri. Those that responded said they did not want to comment.

As for student Katie Hernandez, she believes this type of legislation could save lives.

"If they can think back to the times that they were in high school, and I know everyone had those days where they just were not feeling the best," Hernandez said. "If they were able to miss school and just not think about anything at all, just focus on themselves, which is ultimately what we all want to feel better. If they had that excused absence, imagine how much better everything would have been for them, how that one day could have impacted the rest of their life."

Hernandez also said that if a teacher knew a student was out for a mental health reason, the teacher could possibly help the student more than if they believed the student was missing class for an "illness."

Most teachers still give students work when they are sick or on vacation, Hernandez said, whereas if students missed school for a mental health day, teachers could work with those students on ways to catch up without adding more stress.

House Bill 81 in Utah is now at the governor's desk after the state Senate approved it on Feb. 18. There's no word on if or when it will be signed.

41 Action News reached out to local representatives in Kansas and Missouri but has not heard back from them on this topic.

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