Reminder: Riley Elementary School counselor Sarah Pesavento hangs an anti-bullying poster in her classroom in Terre Haute. Staff file photo by Austen Leake
Reminder: Riley Elementary School counselor Sarah Pesavento hangs an anti-bullying poster in her classroom in Terre Haute. Staff file photo by Austen Leake
Indiana schools have spent years improving safety and security in their facilities.

Now, educators realize it's not just the buildings they need to be paying attention to. It's the students themselves and their increasing mental health needs.

Consider some of the data:

• One in five Hoosier high school students seriously considered suicide, or about 200,000, based on a 2015 survey released in 2016, according to the Indiana Youth Institute.

• Child abuse/neglect rates have nearly doubled in the past 10 years, to nearly 21 out of 1,000 children under age 18.

•The threat of school violence has not eluded the Hoosier state. Last year, on May 25, a student and teacher were injured when a gunman opened fire at West Middle School in Noblesville. In December, police say a phone tip helped prevent an armed 14-year-old from committing a shooting at Dennis Intermediate School in Richmond; the teen later took his own life inside the school.

The Indiana Department of Education, recognizing the importance of addressing students mental health needs, last summer created the position of assistant director of social, emotional, and behavioral wellness.

Jennifer McCormick, state superintendent, stated that Indiana is "one of only a few states in the nation to dedicate a position of this kind to social emotional learning efforts."

Christy Berger, who was appointed to the position, works closely with schools as well as state and local agencies to address social emotional wellness for PreK-12 students.

Social and emotional learning is defined as "the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions," according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

The need is great, said Adam Baker, DOE press secretary. "The social and emotional well-being of students at times seems to be crumbling and it's something we definitely have to shore up," he said.

Ever since the 1999 school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, schools have spent much time and money improving school facilities and student/staff physical safety, Baker said.

"But along the way, I think at times we forgot how important it was to protect children inside and work with those children on the inside so that a child never says, 'I want to retaliate this way. I'm so angry I feel there's no outlet but this,'" Baker said.

Expanding mental health services was among the priority areas identified by a group assembled last year at the request of Gov. Eric Holcomb to examine existing school protections and explore new ways to keep schools safe.

According to Baker, "Emotional, mental support and well being need to be a key component of the safety issue."

Indiana DOE efforts

IDOE has heard from districts about their need for support in these areas. "Our goal is to ensure that social and emotional skills are part of learning that help children be successful not just in school, but in life," Baker said.

In one initiative, the Department of Education has created a "tool kit" on its website that includes social-emotional lesson plans, professional development opportunities and other resources. It shows what skills children should have at each grade level, and it provides activities and strategies teachers can use to teach those skills.

For example, if a few fourth graders argue on the playground about something, and one child gets too upset, the website provides strategies for a teacher to work with that child and help them understand why another response is better.

Teachers may not always know how to respond to certain situations, Baker said. "We want them to know, we support you and here are some strategies ... so you don't have to feel like you're going at it alone." The state also is offering professional development opportunities.

In another initiative, last fall, IDOE announced that it had received a $9 million federal grant to address mental and emotional health within Indiana schools. The Project AWARE [Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education] grant was awarded to three districts, including the Vigo County School Corp., with the state providing oversight.

Project AWARE

Through Project AWARE, the Vigo County School Corp., in partnership with Hamilton Center, a community mental health center, was awarded $2.8 million in federal funds over a five-year period.

It hopes to expand on programming already in place, and its efforts will serve as a model for the rest of the state. The funds will help ensure that all children who need mental health services have access to those services, said Rick Stevens, VCSC assistant director of student services and a project manager.

"Kids are having a lot of mental health challenges, and it's impacting their education and progress," he said.

In Vigo County, about 25 percent of children lived in poverty in 2017, making it the fourth highest among Indiana counties.

Vigo County's child abuse/neglect rate in 2017 was more than double the state average, at 43 who are abused/neglected per 1,000 children.

Also, increasing numbers of students report feeling sad or hopeless for two or more weeks in a row. Among Vigo County 12th graders, the rate increased from 28.8 percent in 2015 to 33.9 percent in 2018, according to IYI.

"I find that staggering. What's going on that kids are so unhappy with things?" Stevens said.

In other IYI data, 17 percent of Vigo County seniors had seriously considered attempting suicide in 2018, and 12.2 percent made a plan to carry it out. For 10th graders, 22.8 percent had seriously considered attempting suicide.

The district is using the Project AWARE grant in several ways, including additional counseling services provided by various community agencies.

On March 15, Stevens and Megan Kirk, Project AWARE coach, met with five outside vendors/agencies who will begin providing six weeks of individual and group counseling in April. The goal is to provide services to students who otherwise might not be served, and all 28 VCSC schools will benefit.

Topics that could be covered in group counseling sessions include bullying prevention, skills for healthy relationships, anger management, conflict resolution, stress management and grief/loss; more providers could be added in the future.

Other initiatives have been underway as well.

Mental Health America of West Central Indiana is providing suicide prevention training for school counselors, behavior interventionists and deans. 

• The district contracted with Chavez Phelps, assistant professor of school psychology at Indiana State University, to provide a workshop on childhood trauma and interventions.

• Hamilton Center has provided Youth Mental Health First Aid Training to staff and the goal is to train 240 staff this year. “There are a lot of training opportunities through this grant,” Stevens said. Similar training will take place this summer for a group of high school students who will be seniors in 2019-20.

Project AWARE also seeks to incorporate social/emotional learning into the school day and the curriculum, so that students are acquiring those skills. "This has to be ongoing, all the time, not just some of the time," Stevens said.

Other components include increased access to treatment for families and students, both through counseling but wraparound services; an overall assessment of mental health needs in the school district, which will drive the next four years of the grant; and sustainability of initiatives.

"What can we put in place along the way so that when money [from Project AWARE] is gone, we can sustain what we're doing?" Stevens said.

Parent engagement is another area being targeted. Through Project AWARE, VCSC has contracted with Hamilton Center to conduct 10 parent nights in schools by the end of the year.

Vigo County was chosen for the grant because it already had a strong partnership with Hamilton Center and was “already offering great mental, emotional and social support services” benefiting students, IDOE's Baker said in September.

The district has added many school counselors in recent years and is now up to 43. Also, separate from the Project AWARE grant, Hamilton Center already has therapists and care managers assigned to provide services in the schools.

Students considering suicide are referred to Hamilton Center for crisis evaluation, and "we're up to 280 referrals for suicide ideation this year," Stevens said. That number has increased from 106 in 2015-16; 186 in 2016-17; and 224 in 2017-18.

What's changed

Why the need for social and emotional learning?

Youth today are encountering things that prior generations didn't face, including mass shootings as well as social media and accompanying cyberbullying. In Vigo County, children face high rates of poverty, physical/emotional/sexual abuse, neglect and family member use of drugs and alcohol.

According to Kirk, "Our kids are being exposed to more and more of those adverse experiences and it's carrying into the school and impacting their ability to focus and learn."

According to Chavez Phelps, ISU assistant professor of school psychology, trauma can affect children's physical health into adulthood as well as their brain development.

"We know for a lot of kids exposed to chronic trauma, often their ability to reason well, to plan, focus in school, to control their emotions ... they struggle with those skills we expect of them; they are in a survival mode ... which is not good for learning."

Part of the brain responsible for learning and thinking is shut off; instead, those students think or react in terms of "fight or flight," or they freeze.

In a trauma-informed school, adults recognize and respond to those who have been impacted by traumatic stress, and children learn social/emotional skills so they can understand and identify their feelings; ask for help and problem solve. There is a positive school climate that creates a sense of sanctuary for children, Phelps said.

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