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How schools can address mental health to reduce school violence

By partnering with a managed care plan, an urban school district brought mental health resources into its schools

With another school shooting just down the road from me last month, it was sobering to see parents and community members leaving positive Post-it notes and sidewalk chalk messages to encourage children to walk into schools. We have been told school violence is caused by loss of civility in society, video games, pornography, and guns themselves. Without arguing the pros and cons of the Second Amendment, it is clear to me that people shooting into schools have mental health issues. Adding additional law enforcement presence tends to provide a better reaction in the case of crisis, but educators would generally avoid the crisis by proactively addressing the needs of the children.

Mental health and childhood trauma
Addressing the socio-emotional or mental health issues of children continues to be the one thing many agree can help curb violence in schools. We believe it is essential to address the needs of the entire family. More children are entering the schoolhouse as survivors of some level of trauma due to everything from substance abuse in the household to being the child of a veteran still coping with the aftereffects of deployment.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides an excellent overview of the populations most at risk as well as resources for educators to address the impact of trauma among their students. The concept of trauma-informed teaching is expanding in a range of academic circles.

Addressing the whole family
Recognizing the need to address mental health issues in our community, Muncie (IN) Community Schools (MCS) worked with Meridian Health to develop a Behavior Family Navigator (BFN) program where mental health professionals would be embedded into the MCS schools to work with school staff and families to support student success. About 75 percent of MCS students are in a single-parent home. The goal was for the BFNs to provide in-school and in-home services for children and their families to create a more stable and supportive home environment. If a parent had a substance-abuse issue, the BFN addressed it through the need to remove that as a barrier for student success. As has been mentioned in many forums, all parents want the best for their children, but many don’t know how to help them be successful.

The BFNs and the school staff met regularly to ensure that both groups were on the same page and communicating effectively. Schools and social service agencies tend to use slightly different vocabulary, so translating between the two groups was essential for early success. The BFNs worked with building-level counselors, principals, and teachers to reach out to students and address needs.

Many students became formal clients of Meridian Health, but the partnership provided for a percentage of the services provided by Meridian to be just-in-time crisis services for any student in need. This immediate access to mental-health services has helped our district reduce student discipline issues and return students to classrooms more quickly. Previously, students had to leave the building for a day or more to access mental-health services.

Accessing additional community resources
The BFNs, along with some MCS staff, went through Family Navigator training brought to the community through the lead of the United Way. The training allowed everyone involved to learn about additional resources, including food pantries and housing support, that can help our students’ families in their quest for success.

Meridian Health and MCS both committed administrative time to coordinate the efforts of the BFNs. They used federal mental health funding to underwrite the majority of the costs of the embedded BFNs and obtained some grant funding to help launch the program.

Sarah Price, assistant director of student services at MCS, says that the program “has been wonderfully beneficial for students, staff, and families.” Overall, the program has allowed more consistent and reliable mental-health services throughout our schools, built a stronger relationship between both partner organizations, and helped to reduce suspensions by about a third. This is one important step to ensuring our students can experience school in a safe and supportive environment. As one school nurse stated, with Meridian staff in place, we have one more tool “when a crisis occurs” with a student.

“It is a model program more districts should replicate to benefit children and their families,” says Heidi Monroe, director of children’s services for Meridian Health. For a more detailed review of the program, read “Integrating Positive Behavior Intervention Support and Embedded Mental Health Personnel in an Urban School District,” in the April Annals of Public Health and Research special issue on school-based healthcare.

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