COLUMBUS, Ohio — A mental health initiative is making its way through the statehouse.
State Rep. Reggie Stoltzfus, R-Paris Township, is sponsoring a bill that could place religious chaplains in public schools. The proposed bill would give public schools the option to employ religious chaplains to provide guidance to students and faculty dealing with personal challenges.
These might range from distressing home lives to struggles with mental health issues like depression or suicidal thoughts.
"They may have a bad home life that they may be going through. Their friends may be going through a divorce, they may be suffering from depression or even suicidal thoughts. Faculty members, teachers — they need people to talk to as well," Stoltzfus said.
Under the proposed legislation, chaplains would not replace school counselors and would not be mandatory. Instead, the decision to adopt the service would ultimately lie within each separate school district statewide.
State Rep. Gary Click, R-Vickery, is a minister, and has served as a former chaplain. He supports the measure, and explains that chaplains typically collaborate with counselors.
"We were available for people who share our same religious beliefs and some who don't," Click said. "You know, I remember fondly an atheist who loved to have me come visit and enjoyed the conversations. And there was no pressure, no proselytizing that took place, but just being able to talk about the real world, real-life experiences."
Yet, the bill is facing some scrutiny from organizations such as the Ohio Education Association (OEA). The bill requires that chaplains undergo background checks, but does not mandate them to be licensed through the State Board of Education. The OEA argues that this lack of regulation could compromise the quality of mental health support provided to students.
"We need fully licensed, fully trained mental health professionals working in our schools, alongside school counselors and school nurses and school social workers to make sure that we really are addressing the needs of our students," stated Scott DiMauro, the President of the Ohio Education Association.
DiMauro further expressed concerns over the bill's potential to blur the line between mental health support and religious promotion.
"I would be concerned about any effort to try to steer mental health support in a way that crosses the line into promoting a particular religion," DiMauro said.
The current version of the proposal does not clarify whether parents would be notified if their child speaks with a chaplain. At the moment, it has not yet been assigned a committee and has not had any hearings just yet.