Oklahoma school districts prepare for tragedies

February 11, 2018

BROKEN ARROW, Okla. (AP) — Less than 24 hours after a Broken Arrow High School student had died by suicide, an army of counselors and mental health professionals had descended on the school.

Jaymeson West, a junior and member of the Pride of Broken Arrow marching band, died of a fall from the top of the school’s football stadium during a Sept. 29 football game. His father later said West had “succumbed to the depression he had battled for so long.”

The following day, as many as 50 counselors were available for band members who were gathered for a Saturday meeting.

“We made special efforts to target who we thought was closest to the student,” said Charlie Hannema, the district’s director of public relations. “We made sure that they got one-on-one targeted help. We were intentional about reaching out to students instead of waiting on them to come to us.”

Counselors provided support to parents and offered advice on how to talk with their own children. Some counselors were also available the following school day and followed West’s schedule in case his absence from class was a trigger to other students.

“They call us a survivor school because we are doing the survivor steps,” said Jean Brassfield, who oversees Broken Arrow’s counseling department.

A student or staff death, both of which Broken Arrow has experienced this school year, can create an immediate need for schools to respond with student support and guidance.

As one of the state’s largest districts, Broken Arrow has a dedicated counseling staff prepared to respond to tragedy and conflict. The district also was able to fall back on years of training and preparation for worst-case scenarios.

State education leaders have said the demand for crisis preparation is increasing across Oklahoma, especially in rural school districts that might not have as many community support organizations in their backyard, The Oklahoman reported.

Last year, the state Department of Education offered five free crisis training sessions for school leaders, but “they filled up so quickly and we had a long waiting list, we added five more training sessions,” said Shelly Ellis, executive director of school support and improvement.

Ellis credits the demand for crisis training to district leaders being more aware of the potential incidents that could happen at a school.

“With social media now we are very aware when something happens, even when it’s on the east or west coast, we know immediately,” Ellis said. “I think we are smart enough to know it can happen anywhere.

“But the core of it is educators want to protect their kids and any type of training we can do that helps make that a reality, schools are on board for.”

The training sessions offered by the state Department of Education walked schools through the creation of a crisis plan and how to identify community partners. It also advised districts to pre-emptively perform background checks on potential community partners, in order to avoid a delay in the immediate hours and days following a crisis.

Smaller school districts were also encouraged to connect with neighboring districts so they could create an agreement to support each other in the event of a tragedy, Ellis said.

“You don’t really know the fallout or what’s going to happen (after a crisis), so you have to be really prepared for everything,” said Kelly Grimmett, superintendent of Vinita schools, which has experienced three student deaths over the past year, including a fourth grader who died after losing consciousness in a PE class. “I found out that there were a lot of people who knew a lot about it who reached out to us.”

The need to focus on student and faculty mental health also exists following larger tragedies, like a weather event, that leave schools unable to operate and forced to juggle students and logistics.

“I always ask schools if they have a plan to continue operations. Most schools don’t,” said Gary Rudick, a field representative with U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Oklahoma School Security Institute.

“In those situations, schools have to have a plan in place for where they are going to meet. What does it look like when teachers and staff show up and say, ‘how am I going to get paid?’”

The death of a student or school staff member may bring increased attention to student struggles, but Brassfield said there is a need for mental health support well before a significant incident.

“I see more mental health issues today,” said Brassfield, who was a principal for 23 years before leading Broken Arrow’s counseling department. “Life is just a lot different than it was 25 years ago and I think kids sometimes have more stress.”

Brassfield said it’s hard to talk about changing mental health needs without bringing up Oklahoma’s stagnate school funding.

“Funding impacts our ability to provide social workers and more wraparound services to students,” Brassfield said. “We have to rely more on the outside services, but we know those are getting cut. Oklahoma’s mental health agency just got cut. That is going to affect schools in some way.”

Brassfield said it’s also important for districts to look at how other schools responded to tragedy.

Despite having more resources, Broken Arrow reached out to Vinita for advice.

“Sometimes you can’t do it on your own and it’s always helpful to be talking to other districts and hearing how they handled a situation,” Brassfield said. “We are one big team.”


Information from: The Oklahoman, http://www.newsok.com

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