Schools look to make mental health a priority

October 13, 2018

An August report indicated that mental health services were inadequate in Pennsylvania schools. As a response, some of the local leaders in education implemented strategies and programs that would make the students healthier while correspondingly making the schools a safer place to work and learn.

The Pennsylvania School Safety Task Force Report was the culmination of the work of a group created by Gov. Tom Wolf and Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who announced in March the creation of the task force. It identified strategies to improve school safety, security and preparedness. During six regional meetings held from April through June, the members of the group heard from government officials, statewide education organizations, law enforcement officials, community leaders, school teachers, parents and students.

One of the report’s key findings was that students were reluctant to go to mental health providers for fear of what other students may think. They sometimes prefer to talk to friends. and they’re also reluctant to take violent threats seriously. But they did want to talk more to teachers about issues they’re struggling with that they can’t bring up with parents, according to the report.

Joe Kimmel, superintendent of Windber Area School District, said he and other administrators created a new hotline called “We Care!” through which students can text or talk to a therapist and counselor without fear of being ostracized.

“The old way you had people that care and you follow your processes,” Kimmel said.

“But doing the same thing over and over again doesn’t catch all the kids’ issues. This isn’t a cure-all, but it’s a step in the right direction. We acknowledge that sometimes it’s beyond teachers, parents and beyond the community. So here’s an attempt by the school district to help our children be well and feel safe. In the short time we’ve had it, it’s been successful. I think it will be a benchmark for other schools to follow.”

The report indicated that educators should monitor students from grade school to high school. When asked whether Berlin Brothersvalley School District does that, Superintendent David Reeder explained his opinion on the matter.

“It’s hard to say what adequate monitoring for mental health is,” Reeder said. “I don’t know what it is for the general public. A lot of it is an individual approach. We have teachers who know our kids and counselors who talk to our students about issues they’re having. We have social workers to work with students and families. There are a lot of ways a student can refer themselves. There are a lot of ways to access mental health resources.”

Cyberbullying and online threats are also something educators have begun to address. Joe Renzi, superintendent of Salisbury-Elk Lick School District, said they’ve had state police train his staff on social media awareness.

“We work hard to be as proactive and preventive as possible with our student body and encourage them that if they see something, they need to say something,” Renzi said.

One of the other issues mentioned by the report was the school health care providers’ inability to get confidential information due to federal laws, which protect sensitive medical information provided to doctors from patients. Mark Bower, superintendent of Rockwood Area School District, said mental health professionals are only privy to the information for students who are being treated for mental health concerns if the parents of students younger than 14 give written consent for it to be shared. Students 14 and older give it themselves.

“It only becomes a problem if the written consent is not provided,” Bower said. “In most cases, our mental health professionals receive the consent. The bigger concern for our mental health professionals is when a student is receiving supports or services from multiple agencies, and our mental professionals are unaware of all the services.”

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