WILMINGTON — Director of Student Support Services Alice Brown-Le Grand, Coordinator of Behavioral Health and Social Emotional Support Christine Murray, and Coordinator of Special Education Services Soula Bousios reported on student well-being concerns to the School Committee during their meeting last Wednesday night.
Superintendent Dr. Glenn Brand started by explaining the intent of the district to be transparent with the struggles that staff, school administration, and families have been enduring.
Brown-Le Grand stated one thing that has been clear from the last few years, which was that the pandemic had ongoing effects on everyone in terms of resources, stress, and consistency. She said she knew that there were concerns during their recent presentation of the Panorama data to the committee. She also said that the American Academy of Pediatrics had declared student mental health a national emergency in October.
Some data that they referenced came from Wilmington Substance Abuse Program Coordinator Samantha Reif. This said that behavioral health calls for students in crisis increased. In September, the police department received 10 calls for suicidal/ideation plans or ideas. Reif also recorded an increase in substance abuse and the effects of trauma.
More issues they’re noticing on a higher than usual were grandparents raising grandchildren and children having to care for parents or other children.
Murray specifically mentioned police and fire response to activity in the school district rising dramatically. She said these calls were mostly due to behavioral issues, mental health crises, and violence. She counted over 30 emergency psychiatric crises at school in 56 days in school.
She also saw an increase in involving the Department of Children and Families, with issues involving homelessness and group homes. She suggested that increased conduct difficulties like bullying and dangerous behavior were the result of students not being able to cope or regulate their emotions.
She also brought up the Youth Risk Behavior Survey results, which showed over one-third of students at the high school and one-quarter of students at the middle school answering that their mental health is not good most of the time or always. The Signs of Suicide results going back to 2019 showed 14.8 percent of 7th graders at that time being in the red zone, and this year 23.8 percent of 8th graders in the red zone.
School Committee member Melissa Plowman asked about how the Signs of Suicide program was administered to students. Murray explained that it was given in health class by a school psychologist and the health teachers, who both have experience. There’s also a video shown, she said, with suggestions for students if they’re concerned about a struggling family member or friend.
Bousios discussed an increase in counseling supports needed and a shortage of school psychologists. She said that the department is trying to be thoughtful and diligent about hiring while understanding the needs.
“We have to prioritize what we’re addressing first,” she continued.
She stressed the importance of utilizing counseling-related resources and being creative with focus to meet the needs at each school. She also mentioned a lack of substitutes and creativity needed to make sure classes are covered and services are provided.
Bousios went on to say that they’re doing their best to respond to all of the parent requests for support and referrals reaching out about social-emotional behavior, but sometimes they struggle to figure out what supports are necessary. She said they project to complete more than 500 evaluations this year, and last year they completed 391. Brown-Le Grand clarified this was the highest amount of evaluations on record.
Some of the responses they made to the increase of mental health behavioral needs have been contracting with BCBAs, adding counselors, using Panorama data to focus lessons in classrooms, utilizing the Social-Emotional Learning and Family Engagement Specialists, offering related professional development, and partnering with the Wilmington Substance Abuse Coalition.
Another point made by Brown-Le Grand was that staff and school administration are living through the same things that students and families are.
M. J. Byrnes suggested trying to partner with Lahey or another local hospital to provide clinical support for students. Murray said that they’re always looking to increase mental health offerings and educate staff.
Plowman asked about how staff needs and morale is being monitored.
“My experience is that teachers need logistical support… that they are feeling tapped out on self-care, yoga, or mindfulness,” she said.
She also wanted to see the district track students through the years on their mental health and look into school-based counseling and family engagement for workshops. Chair Dr. Jenn Bryson mentioned on engagement that she would like to see events be tailored both to parents and students and consistently promoted by staff.
David Ragsdale commented that he had perhaps been overly optimistic with full in-person learning making up for what was lost in COVID in terms of connection.
“We need to do everything we can, but we should do so with an attitude of grace and patience.”
He recognized that staff have also been through the same stress and trauma that students and families have.
Jay Samaha asked about the district’s efforts for emotional behavior dysregulation. Brown Le-Grand responded to say that there were students in crisis this year who were remote last year or not even on the district’s radar.