Mental Illness And Schools (Part 4) - 47 ABC - Delmarva's Choice

Mental Illness And Schools (Part 4)

WMDT 47 NEWS - February 14th marks two months since the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. And now, there are a number of proposals on the table, both locally and nationally, on how to prevent this type of mass violence. Law makers are local leaders are discussing everything from arming teachers to gun control.

In part 4 of our special report, WMDT had a round table discussion with administrators, a counselor, the Human Resources Director, and a safety coordinator from Wicomico County Public Schools. The dialogue involved everything from mental illness, to school safety, and their plans to protect students, parents, and staff.

Tracy Sahler, says the school district received a huge surge in calls in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting, from concerned parents looking for reassurance and information on safety procedures. They admit most parents were to some degree relieved after those conversations, which is why they were open to sharing this information with WMDT.

If you have kids in school, you may have noticed already, facilities across the state of Maryland, and all over the nation are locking doors, securing exteriors, and ramping up security protocols.

"It's not 'What are you doing?' It's 'What haven't you done?'" states Andrew Turner, coordinator for the "Safe Schools" program in Wicomico County. Turner says he has been to 2 state director's meetings in the past 2 weeks before our interview, and he says changes are happening across the state, putting schools on the defensive. "When you come to a school, we're trying to make them less user friendly."

But on the inside, it's a much different story. Schools are promoting openness. Turner revealed their new initiative this spring called "See It - Tell It"

"It leads to the idea that we are changing our environment," explains Turner. "And we're changing our environment so that we make everyone responsible for the safety of everyone else."

They also plan to roll out a new hotline this month, where students can report their concerns anonymously. "We can't always visibly tell if someone is experiencing a mental health issue," admits the Safe Schools coordinator, "but we can identify a situation and actions of individuals that make us feel unsafe, and then what we need to do is share that with someone who is going to look into that. We take everything that kids tell us seriously, but we're trying to create a system where we talk about what we see, we talk about the students, and we try to give them some resolve so they can make it through."

Also training for teachers is ongoing, not just to spot problems, but how to act in times of crisis. "If it goes into crisis," described Mary Levis, Wicomico County School Psychologist, "that we can count on them to identify those students and what supports they may need."

"What I emphasize with the staff," adds Turner, "is to build positive rapport and trust with the students because the students are the eyes and ears of what's going on in the schools."

Levis tells WMDT the school system already has a program in place called "Crisis Prevention Intervention", which teachers and staff have to get annual training for, "That has to be ongoing because the world is ever changing and the needs are ever changing."

"We don't just stand ready that particular day or week," adds Dr. Margo Handy, Wicomico County Assistant Superintendent. "We are constantly reviewing, discussing, what we need to do in terms of staffing, in terms of planning, in terms of training."

Levis went further to say there are CPI teams are in each of the school buildings within the district, "It's a way to approach acting out individuals in a non-violent non-threatening way to help them regain their control."

If parents notice changes with their students, Levis says you should not be afraid to mention it to school administrators or faculty, "Contact the classroom teacher, if they're elementary.  Perhaps guidance counselor at the middle and high school, or a preferred teacher of that student.  And say, 'I've noticed these changes at home, can you advise me about where to go?'"

Dr. Handy also shared details about a new program called "Why Try". She says it addresses how school staff can work more effectively on developing relationships and helping students become more resilient. But she tells WMDT there are already many resources in place to spot students of concern, and get them help. A "School Climate Team" and "Student Services Team"; which consist of counselors, social Workers, staff, school administrators, nurses, behavior therapists, and conflict resolution specialists; are in place at every school in Wicomico County.

Although these special teams do exist, school leaders made it quite clear, if a student has a concern about anything going on at the school, they don't have to seek out these groups specifically.  Students need only reach out to a responsible adult they trust, from the staff or teachers. Everyone is trained to handle that information sensitively and appropriately.

But Superintendent Dr. John Fredericksen admits any help they can get on the state level, in terms of funding and legislation, will be much appreciated. At a rally in Annapolis, Maryland Senator Rich Madaleno outlined some key points of a new bill, called the Mental Health Safety act of 2013, "The bill will create school mental health services in every school, which will address all the mental needs, large and small, of all of Maryland's children."

Dr. Fredericksen admits they're looking to the state to control the discussion over safety and offer standards to work by, but they're hoping the state will also allow the local school districts to decide how to implement it. He says the problem is there is no one size fits all security plan for all school districts.

"It's a multi-faceted, of course, issue where there is absolutely no one answer," says Dr. Handy, agreeing with Fredericksen, "but we know that as people we must come together collectively and do what we can to help each other, to help our children, to help our families, to help ourselves be as mentally healthy as possible."

Across the Eastern Shore, our school districts consist of, not just thousands of students, but thousands of employees.

"We've recently had discussions about mental wellness and ways that we can put into place some programs that might be able to assist people on the mental side of wellness," admits Vince Pavic, Director of Human Resources.  Like other businesses, the school district has an Employee Assistance Program, which provides counseling for faculty and staff, should they need it.

"A lot of people working in a very stressful environment," says Pavic of the 3,000 Wicomico County Public Schools employees. "What we're here to do is support the people who are supporting our students."

And of course, school districts have to worry about more than just students, faculty, and staff.  "We have large community events," describes Dr. John Fredericksen.  "We have people come in and patrons that want to see basketball games - football games - other types of activities."   

This is definitely a lot to stay on top of, but school officials reassure parents, security is a top priority. Fredericksen says their focus is being as prepared as they possibly can, without scaring people.

Considering this, the Wicomico County Board of Education is exploring new ways to keep students safe.

For instance, they are now inviting parents to sit in on their "Safe Schools" meetings, to offer ideas, voice their concerns, and help raise money for security upgrades.

You can call Andrew Turner directly at 410-677-4443 if you would like to participate in their weekly meetings, which take place each Friday night at 8:15pm at the Board of Education building.

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