Behavioral Health Specialist

“It’s a ripple effect, if you help one student it positively impacts others as well,” International School Principal Jen Rose said about supporting the mental health of students.

With a growing awareness of the need to holistically address the health and wellness of students, the district is providing social emotional curriculum and mental health resources for students. The goal: to help students identify and understand their needs and give them tools to cope with stressors, so that they may be successful both academically and in their lives beyond the classroom.

The introduction of a social emotional curriculum to elementary schools in 2011 marked a shift in how emotions, feelings, and behavior are talked about, taught, and modeled for our students. As the first generation grows through the grade levels they are equipped with the vocabulary and skills to identify how they feel, where they are struggling, and what supports they need.

Additionally, during the 2014-15 school year a committee met to review existing disciplinary practices and explore preventative, proactive, and restorative approaches that the district could implement.

“In reviewing student discipline data, many of the students that had repeated incidents were for violations related to drug and alcohol abuse,” Executive Director of Schools and Committee Facilitator Patty Siegwarth said. “We had no internal mechanism to be preventative or proactive as it related to substance abuse or use. The data was really a driver for us.”

In the past drug and alcohol support offered at schools has fluctuated as grant money was available or it was funded by an individual school’s PTSA. Based on research and best practices reviewed by the committee, one of the recommendations made was for the district to provide funding for drug and alcohol counselors at middle and high schools.

“The research was indicative that if you could provide the services at the points closest to a student’s community – such as their school – they are more apt to access those services,” Siegwarth said.

This school year general budget funds were allocated for two Behavioral Health Support Specialists – masters-level therapists who also have drug and alcohol treatment certification – to be accessible to all secondary students. Given the level of need seen by staff, funds were reallocated within Student Services to provide for a third Behavioral Health Support Specialist.

“It’s impossible to deal with drugs and alcohol without dealing with mental health issues,” Supervisor of K-12 Counseling Deb Kraft said.

The specialists do preventative work, visiting health classes and leading staff trainings to identify risky behaviors. They also meet with students one-on-one at a student’s request or by the recommendation of a staff member or parent to discuss stressors and coping strategies, as well as to conduct disciplinary drug and alcohol assessments. The specialists meet with students on a short-term basis. If additional support is needed they refer students to out-of-school resources.

The behavioral health support specialist is a unique role requiring a different educational background and certifications than the traditional school counselor. As such, the district contracts for the positions with community partner Youth Eastside Services (YES).

An additional consideration for district staff in contracting with YES was to provide an environment of confidentiality where students could seek help from a professional counselor who wasn’t a school employee.

“It takes the stigma out of getting mental health support,” International Principal Jen Rose said of having a behavioral health support specialist on campus. “It’s at school, it’s a nice person you see around. We talk a lot at school about how many years kids study math, English, science, and we don’t actually teach them how to cope mentally. We don’t give them strategies intentionally, or in any kind of structure, so to have someone here that can help kids in crisis is really important.”

When district staff and the behavioral health specialists are working with a student who is being disciplined for a drug or alcohol offense the conversations are viewed through the broader lenses of social and emotional health and they ask the student: “Why?”

“It’s important that we come down to the reality of why they made those choices,” Supervisor of Pupil Management Glenn Hasslinger, who works with students regarding district discipline, said. “What’s going on behind that? They didn’t just all of the sudden decide one day this would be a good idea. There’s usually history behind it and there’s always underlying reasons. All behavior is trying to tell you something.”

When a student is found to be under the influence at school or at a school-sponsored event they are suspended for 10 days, however if they complete a drug and alcohol assessment and agree to the recommendations made, they can return to class in three days. The student can choose to do this process with the specialist assigned to their school for free or go to an outside provider. It’s an approach in which students face the consequences of their actions and are given the opportunity to break the cycle of substance abuse through choosing to participate in the recommendations.

“If they are out for a length of time, and they already struggle, they wonder ‘what’s the point, I’m already failing those classes, I’m going to stop going altogether,’” said Kristie Neklason, the YES Director of Substance Use and Co-Occurring Disorders Treatment. “The assessment is a piece of that puzzle, dealing with the substance abuse and staying in class.”

Having an established team available for students helps build rapport and trust which can translate into increased follow through and improved outcomes for students.

“One thing I have really appreciated is collaborating with the students and district employees,” Alex Iani, one of the behavioral health support specialists, said. “Often a student’s grades are down, attendance is down, because of something bigger. Whether that is mental health or substance abuse or both. We work together as a team with that student.”

Going forward the district plans to continue funding the positions and will be doing a review with YES to examine data on discipline offenses and measure progress.

“I think it’s really important to recognize that students learn better when they’re in an emotionally healthy place,” Rose said. “We can’t ignore that, we have to provide resources. If we want to help students learn and be successful we need flexible, diverse tools, so having a behavioral health support specialist on board is extremely helpful.”