Burke Schools implement multi-tiered approach to combat nation’s mental health crisis | Local News

Jason Koon Staff Writer

The Burke County Public Schools Student Services Department has implemented a multi-tiered strategy to combat the effects of the nation’s student mental health crisis in Burke County.

“Since returning to face-to-face instruction full time, the mental health of our students and staff is not the same as before,” said BCPS Assistant Superintendent Karen Auton.

Auton’s observation is backed up by recent research, including a comprehensive study released by the CDC in March. According to the study, 44% of high school students reported they felt persistently sad and hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks at some point in the last year. Additionally, 5% of high school boys and 12% of girls reported attempting suicide at some point in 2021.

One key to addressing the mental and emotional health challenges faced by BCPS students has been the Student Services Department. Created in 2017 under the leadership of current superintendent Mike Swan, the Student Services Department brings school counselors, social workers, school nurses and school resource officers together under one umbrella. According to BCPS Public Information Officer Cheryl Shuffler, this provides a variety of support and interventions with the goal of enhancing the overall well-being of students.

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“We do a lot of community liaison work, a lot of partnerships with mental health agencies, the United Way and the Department of Juvenile Justice,” said Sara LeCroy, who now heads the department. “Really, what it all comes back to is student wellness. Everything we do comes back to student wellness.”

Auton said the last two years have reinforced the importance of student wellness.

“We recognized very quickly that we needed to feed them, make sure they were safe and taken care of and then they can learn once those basic needs are met,” she said.

In Burke County, mental health response works on three tiers of support, according to LeCroy.

Tier one is a new social and emotional learning curriculum. While teachers and schools vary as to how they implement the program, all BCPS students are required to go through it.

According to LeCroy, this curriculum meets the needs of approximately 80% of students and also gives teachers a chance to identify students who need extra support.

In addition to the curriculum, LeCroy also pointed to several other methods used to identify students struggling with mental health.

“We really work with our staff and train our staff to always pay attention to students,” she said. “In the classroom or at lunch, who is sitting by themselves? Who doesn’t have a group to be in? … We get a lot of information from journal prompts and writings. They do a lot of writing in health.”

Once identified, a variety of interventions are used to help these students.

“Tier two would be the daily check and connect,” she said. “There’s a lot of mentoring, weekly individual counseling, weekly group counseling, parenting groups, those kinds of things.”

For students needing even more support, the district has entered into a memorandum of understanding with A Caring Alternative, Arrowood Counseling and Consulting, CTS Health, Focus Behavioral Health and Georgia Miles. These agencies provide mental health services for students in their schools and also connect families with available resources in the community.

“It’s a great service because the parent doesn’t have to have gas money and they’re not missing school,” LeCroy said. “It really takes away so many barriers for our kids. It has been really successful.”

The third level of intervention is the district’s day treatment programs housed at Mull Elementary and Hallyburton Academy. These centers allow students to get some of the benefits of inpatient care while still being able to attend school in their home district.

“The most high level, in terms of mental health, is our day treatment programs,” LeCroy said. “That’s one step down from hospitalization, but it’s a way to keep our kids at home and still in our community and in our schools.”

According to LeCroy, the number of students in each day treatment program fluctuates but usually runs around 10 to 12.

In addition to the three-tiered approach, BCPS is also pioneering other responses such as a “Mindfulness Room” at East Burke Middle School and the “Say Something App.”

According to Shuffler, the mindfulness room is a “cool down spot” with alternative furniture and activities for students who need a little extra support during the day while the Say Something App allows students to report bullying, threats and mental health concerns anonymously.

LeCroy also pointed to a wellness check given to every seventh grade student, suicide prevention instruction added to the ninth grade health curriculum and district-wide efforts to prevent substance abuse.

“We’ve just entered into a contract with the Burke Substance Abuse Network; we’re going to add two more substance abuse counselors,” LeCroy said. “We’ve really seen a big issue since we’ve come back, especially with vaping.”

According to CDC statistics, the nation’s student mental health crisis is felt most keenly among girls and LGBTQ students with 12% of girls and 25% of LGBTQ students self-reporting a suicide attempt in 2021. LGBTQ students are also more than twice as likely than their straight peers to self-report mental health challenges, with 76% saying they felt persistently sad or hopeless almost every day for two or more weeks at some point in the last year.

According to LeCroy, the district does not have any mental health services directed specifically toward LGBTQ students.

“At this point, I wouldn’t say they stand out more than any other group,” she said.

LeCroy said staff training is critical to meeting the needs of the district’s LGBTQ students and BCPS has made a concerted effort to train staff and faculty members to be sensitive to specific needs of LGBTQ students and unique challenges they face.

“We certainly have those students at every school,” she said. “I think we’re very in tune with those students and have training and work hard to meet their needs.”

Shuffler said the mental and emotional health of students, faculty and staff will continue to be one of the district’s primary focal points in the 2022-23 school year and beyond.

“The focus in our strategic plan is that we are really trying to put people first,” Shuffler said. “That’s not just the students. It’s the students and the staff and the parents and providing extra levels of support.”

Jason Koon is a staff writer and can be reached at jkoon@morganton.com.

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