Education Dep't. Expanding Mental Health Services to Boost Children's 'Social Skills'

By Susan Jones | August 19, 2013 | 11:37 AM EDT

An all-boys classroom at Middleton Heights Elementary in Middleton, Idaho. (AP Photo/Jessie L. Bonner).

( - The U.S. Education Department says it is giving $12.3 million to 35 school districts in 17 states to expand mental-health services for elementary school students.

"Research shows that having adequate counseling services can help reduce the number of disciplinary referrals in schools, improve student attendance and academic performance, and enhance development of social skills," the news release said.

"Funds also may be used to support parental involvement, counselor and teacher professional development, and collaboration with community-based organizations that provide mental-health and other services to students."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said school counselors play a critical role in student safety: "These grants will enhance school-based counseling programs, which have proven to be a great source of help for students with mental-health issues."

11 of the 35 school districts getting the grant money are in California. Two are in Connecticut, where 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School were murdered in December 2012.

The grants announced on Friday were already in the pipeline before the Sandy Hook shootings took place.

But after Sandy Hook, President Obama called for additional support for mental health services in schools.

In January, as part of his plan to reduce "gun violence," President Obama proposed a Comprehensive School Safety program that would give $150 million to school districts and law enforcment agencies to hire up to 1,000 school resource officers, school psychologists, social workers, and counselors.

And at a June 3 conference on mental health, President Obama talked about "bringing mental illness out of the shadows." He said everyone knows someone who has struggled with a mental health issue at some point, and he talked about the stigma that prevents people from getting help. He also said the nation must do a better job recognizing mental health issues in children.

"Even though three-quarters of mental illnesses emerge by the end of -- by the age of 24, only about half of children with mental health problems receive treatment," Obama said.