After students made a pitch to the La Crosse Board of Education last month to use its COVID relief funding to support mental health services, the board received an update on current services and next steps.
School staff presented the district’s current action plan on mental health, which uses a “Whole Child Framework,” to the board Monday.
This framework or roadmap to address mental health puts an emphasis on social-emotional wellbeing of each student starting with prevention and finishing with connecting families with services. In La Crosse, this includes mental health assessments, community partnerships, in-school social workers and more.
La Crosse Superintendent Dr. Aaron Engel said that after the board heard from students who said they and their peers are struggling mentally amid the pandemic, it was important to share the steps being taken.
“We thought that there’s an opportunity to more clearly show what we have in our school district for mental health supports,” Engel said.
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“This is not to say that we cannot do more,” he said. “This is an opportunity, though, to demonstrate the groundwork that we’ve been laying and kind of where we want to go as we build it out in the future.”
Engel said he wants to implement the most “robust” mental health framework as possible in the district.
Staff said this action plan to better services and supports in the district was already being implemented that morning, and it builds off other policies and practices introduced in recent years.
Something new includes an assessment process, which was being piloted at Longfellow Middle School this year.
The assessment is given to students in their homerooms through an online survey. The data is collected and reviewed by staff, and is used to find trends and highlights in mental health and behavior, not to diagnose individual students.
Director of Community Services Curt Teff told the board that the screenings have been a “reliable approach” so far, and better evaluating the mental health needs of the students is one of the three steps staff outlined in its action plan.
Additional steps in assessments will likely look like meetings between students and counselors or social workers and additional screenings, the plan states, and these evaluations will be followed by finding pathways or strategies to assist students, either by school staff or community partners.
The district already has some of these next steps in place, partnering with around 55 community mental health programs and employing social workers and mental health liaisons, staff said. It also offers assistance programs that can help families and students with getting health care services they need.
The district also has a “handle with care” policy in place, a partnership with the schools and area programs and groups that all communicate and inform each other when a student may have been exposed to trauma and need extra support at school.
The action plan calls for more staff education on mental health, including on understanding issues and being able to connect or refer students to support. It also calls for exploring a Teen Mental Health First Aid, what is described as a “peer navigation” program where students can be better equipped to help each other.
The action plan finally calls for an expansion of services, by increasing on-site mental health services.
“We’re really proud of the range of supports we have in place for students but we’re also very aware that sometimes we may not know if that’s enough or not,” said director of Student Services Aimee Zabrowski.
She said that she believes the district’s current mental health services can support students and families when the need arises, but said that more can be done, especially as the pandemic has exacerbated the problem.
“We know that COVID has had a tremendous impact on mental health,” Teff said. “We hear that, we see that within our schools, our partners share that.”
The staff said it’s seen a trend of feelings of anxiety, loneliness and isolation in middle and high school students, as well as the pressure to meet achievement gaps, and that in the elementary schools an increase in disruptive behavior is an early indicator those same feelings are beginning to manifest.
“There’s a consistent theme around that anxiety and then those pro-social skills maybe not being as in-tune as they were before the pandemic,” Zabrowski said.
Some board members wondered what lens the action plan provided for students of color, some of which have voiced previous concerns that there are little supports catered specifically to them and other students from marginalized communities.
“I know that students from racially diverse backgrounds tend to be more open to folks that look like them, being able to move them through mental health challenges,” said board member Shaundel Spivey. “How are you all taking into account racial trauma, intergenerational trauma?”
Staff said it has worked with the group Black Leaders Acquiring Collective Knowledge to try and provide that lens to its work.
“We talked about what sort of supports do we have that are available to youth of color, that are delivered by youth of color, designed by people of color to support them,” Teff said. “I think it’s a great design of thinking about how to work, think about it through this lens … how do we make sure the representation and proper supports and considerations like that are included.
Staff said it’s open to and welcome to hiring more diverse telehealth and in-person providers, saying the district can hire anyone appropriately licensed through the state, but that some insurance and organizational barriers exist.
In addition, Zabrowski said that the framework and action plan won’t focus on mental health labels, recognizing the damage labels for students has caused in the past, such as in special education. Instead, it will focus on a “full continuum of wellness,” and it may not look like weekly counseling for a student, but more like identifying and providing trusted adults students can find support it when needed.
This presentation was an information item only, and no action was needed from the Board of Education to begin the work.
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