State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-181st Dist.) recently announced plans to introduce legislation aimed at placing more mental-health providers in Pennsylvania’s public schools to prevent bullying and suicide.
The legislation, known as “Phillip’s Law,” is named after Phillip Spruill. Jr. Kenyatta announced his intention to introduce the legislation on May 7, in a memorandum that was distributed to his colleagues in the state House of Representatives.
Spruill, a fifth grader at Benjamin B. Comegys Elementary, died by suicide in his Bartram Village home April 5 after being bullied about his weight. Relatives said Spruill was also despondent because his younger brother was constantly bullied by classmates who perceived him to be gay.
Spruill’s grandmother told PGN the bullying was pervasive. “It was in school, on the school bus and all the way up to his front door, because [the kids all live] in the same complex,” she said. “They would chase [Spruill and his brother] and call them ‘fatty and the faggot.’”
Phillip’s Law will be cosponsored by state Reps. Joanna McClinton (D-191st Dist.) and Wendi Thomas (R-178th Dist.).
“The bill was my idea,” Kenyatta told PGN. “But I brought on Wendi Thomas and Joanna McClinton as prime cosponsors. It’s important that the bill has bipartisan support.”
As of presstime, the bill hadn’t been introduced and assigned a number.
Kenyatta said mental-health workers are not always accessible to students in Pennsylvania’s public schools due to budgetary constraints. He also said there’s no state mandate for public schools to employ mental-health workers.
Kenyatta’s bill would require the state Department of Education to investigate and report on the number of mental-health providers in public schools (K-12) across the state in order to make recommendations on how to increase their numbers.
“It’s critical that we have mental-health professionals in the schools,” Kenyatta explained. “We’ve seen a lot of kids take their lives. That’s what we’re trying to address. This [Spruill’s suicide] was a tragic situation. Our goal is that this doesn’t happen to other students when they have this additional support.”
Kenyatta also praised Spruill’s relatives for speaking out about his death. “I’m really grateful to his family and really moved by how brave they’ve been,” Kenyatta said. “They’ve been very brave, in terms of using this horrific circumstance to talk about what’s happening to students.”
McClinton echoed Kenyatta’s sentiments. “We’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects that school bullying can have on young people in our community.” McClinton said. “I’m grateful to stand alongside Reps. Kenyatta and Thomas to try to get Phillip’s Law passed. If we can save even one life or help even one student overcome school bullying, this fight will have been worth it.”
Thomas said mental-health services should be available to students of all ages. “This boy [Spruill] was 11 years old,” Thomas told PGN. “In my district we lost a middle-school student to suicude in 2019. So we need to look at mental-health issues not just at the high school level but really K-12.”
The Philadelphia School District has 323 counselors for 131,302 public school students, which equates to a ratio of one counselor for every 407 students. The district has added 84 counselors since 2015. However, the American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, according to published reports.
Lee Whack, a Philadelphia School District spokesperson, said the district hopes to hire 21 additional counselors in the near future.
“As a school district, we don’t have the power to raise any revenue,” Whack told PGN. “We rely on the city, state and federal government for our funding. If our 2020 budget is approved, we’ll add an additional 21 counselors across the district. Our proposed budget is about $3.36 billion for 2020.”
Whack said the district is sensitive to the needs of students. “This [Spruill suicide] was a tragedy that everyone at the school is very sad about,” he said. “We’re providing supports to students. We’ll do everything we can to support students. It’s a horrible tragedy that Phillip is no longer here. But there were no official reports of bullying involving Phillip at the school.”
Whack added: “Anytime a child is lost, it’s quite a tragedy. We take bullying and reports of bullying very seriously. We have a bullying hotline, 215 - 400 - SAFE. Since 2015, we’ve added 84 counselors and 220 school-based climate positions to address student behavior -- to keep things going in an orderly fashion, to avoid bullying and conflicts in the schools.”
Pennsylvania is among 20 states that don’t mandate counselors in schools, according to a study conducted by Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. The other states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota and Texas.