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Orange County Perspective

November 19, 1997

Proper Schooling for Disturbed Kids Students who are so aggressive or otherwise emotionally disturbed that they become disruptive or harm their own educational potential need to be given special attention. It's the law, and it's also good policy.

But the Orange County Children and Youth Mental Health Services, in charge of carrying out assessments of these youngsters within 50 days, has fallen far behind. In one shocking example, a Tustin Unified School District student waited 284 days for the required mental health evaluation.

In a ruling released Oct. 31, a Sacramento judge ordered Orange County to get the mental health evaluations for emotionally troubled students done on time. If the county's own doctors could not do it, outside help must be hired.

It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit by Orange County educators to remind the county what must be done. Educators did not fault the Children and Youth Mental Health Services division for its work, but they did blame the county supervisors for not providing enough money and staff to meet the requirements.

The supervisors have made a start. They have added funding for special education students, including a one-third increase in money to carry out the mental health assessments. But the judge, Spencer A. Joe, noted that even with the extra funds, the county probably will not be able to clear the backlog of assessments for five or six months.

That's too long for a child to go without proper schooling. Teachers and school staff make every effort to help troubled children stay in their regular classes. Teachers seek the mental health assessment only when a student appears unable to cope or becomes so boisterous that other students cannot learn.

The judge sharply reminded the county that the lawsuit did not involve merely technical failures to meet deadlines or the fiscal problems of a county that went bankrupt three years ago. He said what was at stake was "a child's right to an assessment . . . and to a free and appropriate education."

The county now must heed the law and do the correct thing for children who need help and by law are entitled to an education. It would help if the state could provide more funds for mental health programs, but even if it does not, the county will have to be diligent about meeting its obligations.

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