Ensure children can be educated

Public schools are supposed to focus on teaching children, not filling gaps in nutrition, health care and mental wellness services. Yet in part because those lapses become evident in classrooms — and affect students’ abilities to learn — educators have had to do something about them.

Emotional and behavioral challenges among children in West Virginia have increased, in large measure because of the drug abuse crisis. Older youngsters may be victims of it directly. Younger ones often are collateral damage because of parents’ substance addictions. As we have pointed out, a substantial portion of the state Supreme Court’s caseload involves children removed from homes for their own safety.

Compassion for Mountain State children ought to be enough to prompt us to provide more help for those dealing with mental challenges. Now, however, we have another reason to act: a mandate from the federal government.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice concluded our state government was violating the civil rights of children with special emotional and behavioral needs. In a nutshell, the federal complaint is that our state institutionalizes too many children, sometimes out of state and far from their families.

Last week, it was revealed the state has entered into an agreement with the DOJ to resolve the problem. It amounts to a pledge by state government that West Virginia will do more to ensure children are provided mental heath services in their communities and, if possible, while living at home.

Coincidentally, state legislators are considering a wide-ranging package of what they hope will be improvements to public schools. One suggestion has been to provide more counselors and psychologists in schools.

Doing so could be a key in compliance with the DOJ settlement agreement.

It is tempting to suggest more in-school mental health services would be killing two birds with one stone, because it could help placate federal officials while helping teachers do their jobs better. That would be misleading: This is not a challenge to be “killed” easily or quickly.

Suffice it to say that some West Virginia children need help that can be given to them in their schools. That alone ought to be enough to prompt legislators to provide it — and taxpayers to pay the bill with no complaints.

This one really is “for the kids.”