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Originally published Tuesday, June 11, 2013 at 4:45 PM

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Guest: Students in Washington schools need nurses

Washington state ranks 43rd in the nation for nurses per student, writes guest columnist Kathleen Bartholomew.

Special to The Times

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SIX minutes was too late. Ten-year-old Mercedes Mear’s heart had already stopped beating and she wasn’t breathing when Pierce County medics arrived on Oct. 7, 2008.

No one in her elementary school knew CPR, or that the medication that might have saved her life, an EpiPen, was kept in the health room where she died, with her name clearly marked on the label.

Who would argue that our children’s safety and health is not paramount? Or that the health of a child greatly impacts attendance, academic achievement, future well-being and ultimately our economy? No one.

Then why is it that the structures we create and support do not match our values?

Washington state’s nurse-to-student ratio is one for every 2,031 students, according to the National Association of School Nurses. We rank 43rd in the nation. In many schools, the nurse has been cut out entirely, or is available only one day a week because this critical health resource has historically fallen under the education budget. Sick children cannot learn.

We have failed our children and fallen short of our collective moral duty to protect and nurture the next generation. Nearly 20 percent of eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders have doctor-diagnosed asthma in Washington state. In that age range, 29 percent are obese. More than 25 percent of our students reported being depressed for two consecutive weeks, according to the 2010 Washington State Student Health Survey.

The simple human need to have someone to talk to is overwhelming. Yet a significantly decreasing trend in the last health survey was having someone available to speak to about substance abuse and mental-health issues.

Every week in Washington state two youths commit suicide, according to the 2009 Washington State’s Plan for Youth Suicide Prevention.

Nurses are keenly aware of the direct link between social and mental health. In the past month, 30 percent of our state’s eighth-graders were bullied. Bullying sets kids up for a lifetime of mental-health problems.

Bullies are four times more likely to have an anti-social personality disorder. Children who were both bullies and victims are 14 times more likely to develop a panic disorder, and nearly five times more likely to be depressed.

Qualified nurses in our schools use research such as this to design interventions to prevent and manage physical, social and emotional distress and disease. They are trained professionals who are skilled at handling seizures, diabetes and depression to name only a few of the thousands of illnesses present in our schools.

Nurses are able to educate students on how to manage stress, eat healthfully and manage acute and chronic disease. But they can’t do any of this, because they are not there.

Spin the wheel. Maybe the day your child’s life depends on it there will be a nurse in your school. Or maybe not. Just don’t bet on it. If it’s not Thursday in Sequim, or Wednesday in East Olympia, advise your child not to get injured or sick. Your chances are terrible.

Washington’s Supreme Court ruled the state is failing its constitutional duty to educate its children, yet the Legislature cannot find the billion dollars needed to comply. And that’s just for basic education.

As long as the school nurse is a line item in a political lottery, our children remain in peril. It’s time to replace the current system based on luck and a patchwork of multiple revenue streams and mandate a sustainable, secure funding source.

Figure it out. Denying our children this critical resource at a time when they are depending on us to protect them is collective negligence.

In the absence of a health-care system dedicated to improving the health of Americans rather than reacting to diseases, having an R.N. with a bachelor’s degree in every school would dramatically improve the health of our students, place Washington on a trajectory to wellness, and most important of all, create an infrastructure that matches and supports what we value: our children and our future.

Kathleen Bartholomew lives in Friday Harbor and co-authored the book “Charting the Course: Launching Patient-Centric Healthcare” with her husband, John J. Nance.

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