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Recent Law Requires Virginia Schools to Provide for Mental Health Absence

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A law passed by the General Assembly as part of its 2020 session requires the Virginia Department of Education to grant excused absences to students due to mental or behavioral health. Different local school divisions appear to have different policies governing the issue.

Mental health concerns are at the forefront following a shooting incident this week at Heritage High School in Newport News. Dozens of students witnessed the shooting that left two students, both 17, injured. Police believe the suspect is a 15-year-old student. Both victims are expected to recover.

Hundreds more at Heritage endured the trauma of a lockdown and evacuation as authorities sought the shooter. Police say he was turned in to juvenile services about three hours later by a family member.

Leigh McInnis, executive director of Newport Academy in Northern Virginia and not connected to Newport News Public Schools, treats adolescents, teens and young adults.

“If left untreated, [the shooting incident] can impact someone for years,” McInnis said Thursday morning.

She estimates about a quarter of the students at Heritage High will show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, based on research.

“They’ll have intrusive memories of the event, flashbacks, irritability and anger associated with what happened, feeling guilty like you should have been able to help,” she said.

Right now in their school handbook, Newport News Public Schools make only one reference to mental health and excused absence. It requires documentation from a mental health professional. Chesapeake Schools enable mental health as a reason for absence with a written note from a parent.

A spokesperson for Newport News Public Schools said late Thursday afternoon the division “is continuing to offer support for the students and staff at Heritage High School and Huntington Middle School. While virtual instruction began today at Heritage and Huntington, all students not in attendance this week will be noted as “excused” from attendance.”

McInnis says it’s important for parents to create a structure to a mental health day by making a schedule of events with breaks, and how long those breaks can last.

“To really create a framework for that child to be able to decompress, but to have structure and safety,” McInnis said.

And what the student says they want — and what they need from a mental health standpoint — can be very different.

“They may say that they want to sleep for hours, they may want to sleep the day away, they may want to numb themselves with video games to avoid thinking about the stressing event,” she said.

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