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The Commons
Voices / Viewpoint

Mental health matters

Leland & Gray is trying to eliminate the position of the in-school social worker. This change would be a grave and dangerous mistake.

Margaret Wimberger copy-edits books for a number of publishers, including Brattleboro’s Green Writers Press.

If you share our concern, it is crucial that the principal, the board, and the superintendent see new faces and hear new voices. Please call or write to your board member, and show up at the board meeting on Tuesday, December 12, 7 p.m. in the Leland and Gray Library. Sign the petition at https://www.change.org/p/help-save-leland-gray-s-social-worker-support-vital-student-mental-health-help

Originally published in The Commons issue #437 (Wednesday, December 6, 2017). This story appeared on page D1.



Between 2000 and 2015, depression among Americans aged 12-17 rose four times faster than among anyone else in the population, according to a study from Columbia University.

Between 2009 and 2015, attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting, and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, with the sharpest increase among those aged 10 to 14. That rate nearly tripled from 2009 to 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

In Vermont, calls to the state’s Child Protection Line continue to increase each year — by 29 percent since FY 2013. In FY 2016, the state’s Family Services division of the Department for Children and Families received a record 21,142 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect and initiated 5,536 child safety interventions: 3,074 assessments and 2,462 investigations.

Opiate addiction continues to be a factor affecting children’s safety in Vermont. One of the consequences is a substantial increase in the number of children in DCF custody, from 982 in FFY 2013 to 1,323 in FFY 2016.

At Leland & Gray Union Middle and High School, the number of children needing clinical psychological services not only steadily rises, but according to school social worker Susan Gunther-Mohr, “our children seem decreasingly capable of managing the demands of an increasingly complicated world.”

* * *

One would think that school administrators and districts would seek, if anything, to beef up therapeutic services at all levels of education, and certainly some are — Brattleboro and Bellows Falls among them.

Yet Leland & Gray Principal Bob Thibault, supported by Windham Central Supervisory Union Superintendent Bill Anton, is proposing the elimination of the school social worker position in the FY 2018 budget — not even as a cost savings, but as a reorganization, adding school counseling/administrative staff.

The plan is based on the belief that school counselors can cover many of the areas addressed by the school social worker and that therapeutic needs can be met through social-services contracts, as currently happens for some students, at no cost to the school.

This belief is cause for deep concern, chiefly because school counselors are not trained to provide the therapeutic support that many students need at one time or another over the course of their time at L&G.

This change would be a grave and dangerous mistake, one that would:

• Endanger students and keep them from becoming healthy learners, peers, and community members.

• Overburden teachers and counselors with crises outside their expertise; Ignore priorities and plans developed by the district and the school themselves.

• Go against the tide of the current educational movements to integrate mental health and academic intervention.

Consider:

• The school setting is “far and away the first line of intervention when it comes to diagnosing and treating mental-health issues,” according the School Social Worker Association of America, and “may be the only professional counseling available to many students.”

• Identifying groups that are experiencing significant increases in depression can help guide the allocation of resources toward reducing the individual and societal costs associated with depression.

• Children’s learning, behavior, and relationships are impacted by both traumatic events and chronic developmental trauma (such as long-term exposure to neglect, unmet basic needs, unpredictability, chaos, and lack of attunement and safety), affecting their ability to access their education.

• Both the Windham Central Supervisory Union and the Leland & Gray board have identified mental health as priority goals:

—The WCSU’s own Continuous Improvement Plan for 2018 and beyond (Smart Goal #4, Social and Emotional Health) recommends devoting resources to establish a social worker position for therapeutic interventions for students and their families whose needs are beyond standard counseling,” as well as “raising awareness and creating trauma-informed schools,” “restorative justice practices,” and establishing “models for improving school climate, such as Positive Interventions and Support.”

—The L&G board recently established priorities for Leland & Gray goals. Number 2 was “Foster students’ preparation for college and career, based on the Whole Child and Multiple Intelligence best practices for teaching and learning.”

A Whole Child approach addresses social-emotional wellness and applies child-adolescent growth and development theory in the context of learning.

Among the Multiple Intelligences are “interpersonal intelligence” and “intrapersonal intelligence.”

• The school social worker provides what school counselors cannot. Although school counselors provide a wide array of services, a SSW is uniquely qualified to address these mental-health concerns with clinical therapeutic skills.

• An in-house clinician provides what outside clinicians cannot. Outside clinicians do not have the close relationships and knowledge of teachers, group dynamics, other students, curriculum, and the daily climate of the school, or the ability to identify students who are struggling and do not come forward themselves. Current outside clinicians at Leland & Gray work closely with the school social worker in treating children.

• An in-house SSW is a resource for teachers, school counselors, families, and outside clinicians. One teacher attests: “My job would be impossible without the support of a trained mental health professional in the building. She is a most essential collaborator in addressing [mental health] concerns, especially those that require reporting to social services or complicated interactions with parents and guardians.”

• An in-house presence known and trusted by the whole school community normalizes the fact that we all have days when our mental health is in need of care.

* * *

To eliminate the school social worker position is to revert to the organizational structure in place seven years ago, when two full-time counselors were employed and mental-health needs were overwhelming. To reinstate the position once it’s been eliminated would likely prove difficult.

It is the job of the school board to ensure that the school budget and organization align with the best interests of students. In the desire to support the hard work of our new principal, some board members hesitate to question any aspects of his proposed budget.

But the essential work of the board, according to the Vermont School Boards Association, is to “engage the community, create a vision, employ a superintendent to lead in achieving that vision, [and] adopt a budget to support the vision, and monitor progress toward the vision.”

According to School Board Director Emily Long of Newfane, “The board’s job is to ask the fundamental questions, like, ‘Does this harm students?’ ‘Is there a way to mitigate loss in one area and build up weakness in another?”

“The board needs to know that the students’ needs will be met,” Long said.

Many members of the community — teachers, students, mental-health professionals, guardians ad litem, employers — have turned out at board meetings and have written to and met with the principal and superintendent to voice their strong support of the school social-worker position.

Let your school board know that their budget vote matters to you!

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