Jason Koon Screenwriter
The Burke County Public Schools Department of Student Services has implemented a multi-tiered strategy to address the effects of the national student mental health crisis in Burke County.
“Since returning to full-time face-to-face instruction, the mental health of our students and staff has not been the same as before,” said BCPS Deputy Superintendent Karen Auton.
Auton’s observation is supported by recent research, including an extensive study published by the CDC in March. According to the study, 44% of high school students said they felt continuously sad and hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more at some point in the past year. Additionally, 5% of high school boys and 12% of girls said they had attempted suicide at some point in 2021.
One of the keys to addressing the mental and emotional health challenges faced by students at BCPS has been the Student Services Department. Established in 2017 under current Superintendent Mike Swan, the Student Services Department brings together school counselors, social workers, school nurses and school resource officers under one roof. According to Cheryl Shuffler, public information manager for BCPS, this offers a variety of supports and interventions with the goal of improving the overall well-being of students.
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“We do a lot of community liaison work, a lot of partnerships with mental health agencies, the United Way and the Department of Juvenile Justice,” said Sara LeCroy, who now heads the department. “Really, it all comes down to the welfare of the students. Everything we do comes down to the welfare of the students.
Auton said the past two years have reinforced the importance of student welfare.
“We recognized very quickly that we needed to feed them, make sure they were safe and cared for, and then they could learn once those basic needs were met,” she said.
In Burke County, the mental health response operates on three levels of support, according to LeCroy.
The first level is a new social and emotional learning program. Although teachers and schools vary in how they implement the program, all BCPS students are required to complete it.
According to LeCroy, this program meets the needs of about 80% of students and also gives teachers the opportunity to identify students who need additional support.
In addition to the program, LeCroy also pointed to several other methods used to identify students struggling with mental health issues.
“We really work with our staff and train our staff to always pay attention to students,” she said. “In class or at lunch, who sits alone? Who doesn’t have a group to be part of? … We get a lot of information from prompts and journal entries. They write a lot about health.
Once identified, various interventions are used to help these students.
“The second tier would be the daily check-in and login,” she said. “There’s a lot of mentoring, weekly individual counseling, weekly group counseling, parent groups, that sort of thing.”
For students who need even more support, the district has entered into a memorandum of understanding with A Caring Alternative, Arrowood Counseling and Consulting, CTS Health, Focus Behavioral Health, and Georgia Miles. These organizations provide mental health services to students in their schools and also connect families with available resources in the community.
“It’s a great service because the parent doesn’t have to have gas money and they don’t miss school,” LeCroy said. “It really removes so many barriers for our children. It’s really successful. »
The third level of intervention relates to the district day treatment programs hosted at Mull Elementary and Hallyburton Academy. These centers allow students to enjoy some of the benefits of hospital care while still being able to attend school in their home district.
“The highest level, in terms of mental health, is our day treatment programs,” LeCroy said. “It’s a step up from hospitalization, but it’s a way to keep our children home and still in our community and in our schools.”
According to LeCroy, the number of students in each day treatment program fluctuates but generally hovers around 10 to 12.
In addition to the three-tiered approach, BCPS is also spearheading other responses such as a “mindfulness room” at East Burke Middle School and the “Say Something” app.
According to Shuffler, the mindfulness room is a “place to relax” with alternative furniture and activities for students who need a little extra support during the day, while the Say Something app allows students to anonymously report bullying, threats and mental health issues.
LeCroy also pointed to a health checkup given to every seventh grader, suicide prevention instructions added to the ninth grade health curriculum, and district-wide efforts to prevent substance abuse.
“We just signed a contract with the Burke Substance Abuse Network; we will be adding two more addiction counselors,” LeCroy said. “We’ve really seen a big problem since we came back, especially with vaping.”
According to CDC statistics, the nation’s student mental health crisis is being felt most acutely among girls and LGBTQ students, with 12% of girls and 25% of LGBTQ students reporting a suicide attempt in 2021. LGBTQ are also more than twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to self-report mental health issues, with 76% reporting feeling continuously sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more at some point in the last year.
According to LeCroy, the district has no mental health services specifically for LGBTQ students.
“At this point, I wouldn’t say they stand out more than any other band,” she said.
LeCroy said staff training is critical to meeting the needs of LGBTQ students in the district, and BCPS has made a concerted effort to train staff and faculty members to be sensitive to the specific needs of LGBTQ students and the unique challenges faced. they are faced.
“We definitely have these students in every school,” she said. “I think we are very much in tune with these students and have a background and work hard to meet their needs.”
Shuffler said the mental and emotional health of students, faculty and staff will continue to be a primary focus for the district in the 2022-23 school year and beyond.
“The focus of our strategic plan is that we’re really trying to put people first,” Shuffler said. “It’s not just the students. It is the students, staff and parents who provide additional levels of support. »
Jason Koon is editor and can be reached at [email protected]