NYC advocates, parents push for alternatives to police, ambulances for kids in mental health crisis

Queens mom LaTasha Wilson was used to getting calls from her daughter’s elementary school alerting her to behavior concerns — but she wasn’t prepared for the one that came on Feb. 15.

Wilson’s six-year-old daughter, Violet, who has autism and ADHD, was in an ambulance on the way to the hospital after the school called 911 on the first-grader during a mental health crisis, Wilson recalled a staffer from Public School 186 telling her.

“I screamed bloody murder,” Wilson said.

No one at the school called her during the 45 minutes when her daughter reportedly cried inconsolably and threatened to harm herself, Wilson claims. They only alerted her once her daughter was already in the ambulance, Wilson said.

The distraught mom sped over to the pediatric emergency room at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, where she found her daughter cycling between “sleeping, crying, and [being] really scared.”

The girl was discharged from the hospital and has since returned to school, but the incident has left a lasting mark on both mother and child.

A pilot program that is on the chopping block in the city budget next year could have prevented the trauma Violet and other students have experienced being shipped off to a hospital during an emotional crisis.

Advocates have been pushing to get the city to invest more in equipping schools with alternatives to law enforcement involvement and hospital trips for kids — and got a big boost last year when the city allocated $5 million in the budget to pilot a new initiative called the “mental health continuum.”

The program, a partnership between the city’s Education Department, public hospital system, and health department, trains teachers in de-escalation, puts school staff in contact with mental health professionals who can talk them through how to handle the situation, and, as a last resort, sends a “mobile child crisis” team to the school, avoiding a trip to the hospital.

But now, after only one year of piloting the program in 50 schools in the Bronx and Brooklyn, the city is proposing cutting its funding, according to Mayor Adams’ April executive budget.

“We have learned so much as this model is getting off the ground, and it would be just a real travesty to pull the rug out from under schools that are relying on it to meet the needs of their students,” said Dawn Yuster, the director of the school justice project at Advocates for Children.

Wilson agrees.

“I think that’s an amazing idea,” she said. “[It’s] something that should happen and needs to happen because unfortunately a lot of kids like my daughter, when they’re taken there [to the hospital], they don’t get to come back home.”

The principal of P.S. 186 didn’t respond to a request for comment about Wilson’s allegations, and a spokeswoman for Mayor Adams declined to comment, citing student privacy restrictions.

More than 1,600 students who were taken to a hospital in an ambulance for a psychiatric evaluation during an emotional crisis between July 2021 and March 30, according to an analysis of NYPD data by Advocates for Children.

Black and Latino kids are far more likely than their white and Asian peers to get taken to the hospital, comprising 83% of “child in crisis” calls even though they only make up 66% of city students, the analysis found.

While the number of hospital trips this year represents a significant decrease from the 2018-2019 school year, the last full year before the pandemic, it’s still too high, and reflects deep flaws in the school system’s approach to dealing with kids in crisis, Yuster said.

“Being hospitalized in a psychiatric emergency room… is deeply traumatic and wherever it is not needed, we should be doing everything possible to prevent our children from being subjected to that,” she said.

Mayor Adams is negotiating the final budget with the city council.

City Council Education Committee chair Rita Joseph (D-Brooklyn) didn’t respond to a question about the status of the negotiations over the mental health continuum.

Adams’ spokeswoman Amaris Cockfield said, “we are reviewing the City Council’s priorities through the budget process. Currently, DOE continues to look at the best ways to respond to schools’ emotional crises, including every school having a social worker, counselor, or school-based mental health center.”