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June 6, 2007

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MN Session Report: The Good & The Bad
PART II, Psychological Screening

[See Nanny State Expansion, Part I]

[]  .) 1 Informing Parents of Their Right to Opt Out of Preschool Screening -- Passes
The state must now inform parents that they have the right to opt out of preschool screening. The current law states that parents may conscientiously object to screening, but public notices to parents are highly misleading. They usually state that Minnesota law requires all preschoolers to be screened before kindergarten. Most parents were not told that their children do not have to participate in the highly subjective mental screening or the nosy personal questions about family life that ask about gun ownership, eating habits and "exposure to violence."

        This is a very important victory that will shield many families from intrusive data collection and many children from false mental illness labeling at an early age that will follow them throughout their years. It will also reduce unnecessary referrals for dangerous psychiatric treatment. Great thanks for this goes especially to Rep. Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud), who sponsored this language as separate legislation, and to Sen. Betsy Wergin (R-Princeton) who worked to get it amended into the Senate bill.  Thanks also goes to the DFL leadership for leaving this common sense parental rights language in the final bill..

[]  2.) Infant Mental Health Screening -- Fails
The entire section of legislation to establish a Kindergarten Readiness Advisory Board that included infant mental health was dropped from the final K-12 bill. This would have affected all children, birth through age 5, in the recommendations of a statewide early childhood system to be designed by this appointed board. (See EdWatch update here.) Part of that system would have included infant mental health as part of a federal grant program that seeks to "screen all children birth to age five early and continuously" for "behavioral health." "Behavioral health" is used to describe socio-emotional or mental health. It requires screening and treatment which more and more frequently is drugs, even in very young children. 

        Although this Advisory Board, appointed by elected officials, would have been preferable to the barely accountable MELF system which did pass (see Nanny State Expansion, Part I), concerns remained. The Advisory Board was directed to recommend a statewide early childhood system that included infant mental health. In addition, preschool mental screening continues in this state, with extremely vague or non-existent statutory authority and weak or non-existent parental consent or notification. Hopefully, this existing screening will be curbed by the parents' rights language on screening that was passed and discussed just above (See item #1).  Thanks goes to the Governor for threatening a veto and the House Republican Caucus for being willing to uphold a veto of the education bill that starved the funds for yet another bureaucratic intrusion into family life. 

 [] 3.) TeenScreen -- Passes
Funding for mental screening programs like TeenScreen passed in the education spending bill (HF2245)
. Due to enormous opposition and pressure from you, the public, this program went from "in your face" specific implementation of the very controversial TeenScreen program to the stealth description of  "voluntary, opt-in suicide prevention tools" in the Safe Schools Levy. Opt-in does not mean that parents have requested psychiatric screening or that they have been informed of the dangers of the program. [For more information on TeenScreen , click here.]

         TeenScreen must be challenged at the individual school district level. Some districts in Minnesota have already been implementing TeenScreen, even before receiving the additional money this levy will provide. However, once parents and school boards are notified of the controversial and unscientific nature of TeenScreen with its high false positive rates and other problems, many boards across the country have refused TeenScreen or parental permission rates have been so low that schools have discontinued the program.

        Besides many thanks to you for your calls and emails, great thanks goes to Representatives Mark Olson (R-Big Lake), Tom Emmer (R-Delano), Tony Cornish (R -Good Thunder), Laura Brod (R-New Prague), Paul Kohls (R-Victoria), and Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton) for sponsoring amendments to remove this provision and for speaking out on the House floor and in committees against this bad language. The entire House Republican caucus with the exception of Representatives Jim Abeler (R-Anoka), Carol McFarlane (R-White Bear Lake), Ron Erhardt (R-Edina), Morrie Lanning (R-Moorhead), Denny McNamara (R-Hastings), Neil Peterson (R -Bloomington), and Kathy Tinglestad (R-Andovor) voted to remove this provision.  (Rep. Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, was absent.). No Democrats supported the amendment.

[]  4.) Discriminatory Mental Screening of Poor Children -- Passes
A pilot program that will psychiatrically screen the children of low-income families passed in the Health and Human Services bill. Those receiving benefits through the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) will have their children screened for mental illness. The dangers of this psychiatric screening are the same as the dangers of TeenScreen. This program is also highly discriminatory and stigmatizing for poor and minority children, because it assumes that low-income families are more prone to mental illness.

        Minority activists strongly opposed this measure by testifying and lobbying. EdWatch hoped for a veto of this appropriation. Mental screening in this program will lead to more drugging of poor and minority children than is already happening. According to a study by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 90% of children who see a psychiatrist will receive medication. Poor children on government programs like Medicaid are more likely to receive the strongest anti-psychotic drugs compared to children with private insurance.

        Rev. Herron, an African-American pastor of Zion Baptist Church in north Minneapolis, representing many members of the community group Parents Speak Out, testified twice against the children of the poor being targeted for mental screening. Rev. Herron stated that the poor and minorities are aggressively drugged with dangerous and addictive psychiatric medications as a result of unreliable and subjective mental screening. He testified that universal mental screening is destructive to their families. (See details here.)

        In Rev. Herron's Senate Health and Human Services Budget Committee testimony, Sen. Berglin, the Committee Chair, Sen. Higgins, the bill's author, and committee member Sen. Lourey all insisted that he was mistaken -- that child mental screening was not in the bill. In reality, screening has always been in the bill, and these Senators seriously wronged this highly-regarded leader of the minority community. Rep. Sondra Erickson (R- Princeton) and Rep. Mark Olson (R-Big Lake) are to be thanked for their attempts to amend this language out of the bill.

[]  5.) Early Intervention to Include Mental Screening -- Passes
Mental screening and behavioral intervention was included
into an otherwise positive program that provides added instructional aid to students struggling with math and reading before referring them for special education. The problem comes with the "behavioral intervention" part of the program. Neither the language of the bill nor the program's website clarify how students that are not yet indentified as special education students are screened for behavior problems, what interventions taken, the scientific validity of these interventions, what the parental consent procedures are for screening or intervening, or how these issues are handled in student records. Both state and federal law require parental consent before special education evaluations occur, and Minnesota law upholds a parent's right to refuse these evaluations. Struggling students should not be routinely screened and referred for mental illness or untested behavioral intervention, especially under such unclear consent procedures. 
 
        Dr. Karen Effrem raised these concerns in both House and Senate testimony. The sponsors, Rep. Tim Faust (D-Mora) and Sen. Kathy Saltzman (D-Woodbury), feigned concern about these objections, but in the end did nothing about them. The Senate added this language to the education bill on the very last night of the session. Sen. Warren Limmer (R - Maple Grove) is to be thanked for attempting to add parental consent requirements as an amendment.The entire Senate Republican caucus voted for that amendment with the exception of Sen. Gen Olson (R-Minnetrista), who inexplicably spoke against it. All of the Democrats voted against it.

COMING NEXT: MN Session Report, Part III
International Baccalaureate and Other



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