The Carmel Clay Schools board of trustees on Aug. 24 approved an agreement with Ascension St. Vincent to provide behavioral health services on campus. The unanimous vote came after a brief discussion about whether the hospital system’s ties to the Roman Catholic Church would affect its offerings.
The program, which is expected to cost CCS $665,000 per year, is funded primarily through a school safety referendum approved in 2019. It will provide therapy sessions, skills coaching, medication management, teacher consultations and other services, all of which will be optional for students and staff.
Before the vote, 2018 Carmel High School graduate Chris Nardi urged the school board not to approve the agreement, in part because of Ascension St. Vincent’s association with the Catholic Church, which prohibits abortion and sexual activity outside of marriage and frowns upon homosexuality.
“Given these restrictions, what will happen if a pregnant student wishes to discuss her legal right to terminate the pregnancy?” Nardi asked. “Since LGBT youth are more likely to experience mental health conditions, will they be given care that affirms their sexual orientation or gender identity if they seek the provider’s service?”
The agreement between Ascension St. Vincent and CCS has a provision that states the provider is operated in accordance with the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Healthcare Services. The agreement states that the “principles and beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church are a matter of conscience to the Institute.”
Ascension St. Vincent issued a statement regarding how it would handle circumstances that could conflict with Catholic teaching.
“Ascension St. Vincent is committed to serving all persons and does not discriminate or refuse needed care on any basis,” the statement read. “While some specific interventions are not offered, Ascension St. Vincent providers ensure that patients are informed with comprehensive information regarding their care.”
Ascension St. Vincent has provided athletic training and school nurses to CCS for years without issue, but school board member Pam Knowles said situations where Catholic teaching may differ from beliefs of non-Catholic students would not typically arise in those scenarios.
Associate Supt. Roger McMichael said he doesn’t anticipate religious differences to become a problem and that CCS could choose to terminate the agreement if they do.
“To my knowledge, we have never had an issue that would be a concern relative to the fact that they’re a religious-based hospital,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t anticipate we would with this.”
CCS Supt. Michael Beresford said another provision in the agreement prohibits Ascension St. Vincent from discriminating against anyone because of religion or sexual orientation, among other distinctions.
“While they have guiding principles like we do, at the same time there will be no discrimination against anyone,” Beresford said.
School board President Michael Kerschner said he is confident in Ascension St. Vincent’s ability to provide appropriate mental health services to students.
“As a public school, we believe strongly in separation of church and state,” he said. “We need to remember these providers are professionals and they will do what’s best for the students. If it’s something they do not feel they can handle, there will be a way they will deal with it and we will deal with it.”
Ascension St. Vincent plans to provide a program manager, supervisor liaison, 13 therapists and eight skills specialists on CCS campuses. Many of the services will be covered by insurance or Medicaid, with CCS covering remaining costs. The program is expected to be rolled out gradually as positions are filled.