A student at Lakota West High School shows off her Hope Squad gear. KATIE WEDELL/STAFF
Photo: Katie Wedell
Photo: Katie Wedell

‘Kids coming to school with more trauma:’ Here’s what local schools are doing

Students as young as kindergarten showing signs of emotional and social problems.

Local schools have ramped up mental health resources offered to students and families this year as they see an increase in depression and anxiety among youth.

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward project surveyed the largest school districts in Montgomery, Greene, Miami and Warren counties to find out how they’re addressing mental health as youth suicide rates hit an at least 18 year high statewide. The Path Forward initiative investigates solutions to the region’s most pressing issues, including the Miami Valley’s mental health.

Educators told the Dayton Daily News they now see emotional issues and a lack of coping skills in students as young as kindergarten.

In middle school years, they see students struggle with solving personal problems and exposure to concepts they don’t fully understand via gaming or YouTube. In high school depression, it’s anxiety, pressure to succeed, relationships and sexual orientation issues, as well as experimentation with drugs or alcohol.

RELATED: Why youth mental health is one of the Miami Valley’s biggest issues

It’s a daunting challenge for districts to address all of these needs while also teaching math and reading, school leaders said.

“It is our philosophy that we must meet the needs of the whole child since it all impacts their ability to learn in some manner,” said Katy Lucas, director of student services for Miamisburg City Schools.

New programs, partnerships

Many districts have added counselors and social workers to their staffs this year, as well as contracting for those individuals through Medicaid, county education service centers, and other government and mental health agencies.

And local schools will use a variety of tools to address the mental and emotional needs of students this year.

Fairborn administrators will attend restorative justice training. Springboro schools started a districtwide mindfulness initiative and is in talks with yoga instructors to educate staff.

Several Butler and Warren county districts have partnered with nonprofits, including MindPeace — a Cincinnati program that has placed mental-health professionals in nearly 120 schools — and actress Glenn Close’s organization Bring Change to Mind that works to reduce mental health stigma.

The student council at Centerville High School has made sure helpline numbers are posted in all classrooms. Students in the district also plan to implement Sandy Hook Promise Initiatives like training students, teachers and parents to spot the signs of mental health struggles that could lead to school gun violence.

READ MORE: Teen suicide: One mother’s story

In Lebanon, students in third through 12th grades with parental permission will be involved in a Clarigent Health and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital research project to test an app. It uses artificial intelligence and advanced algorithms to analyze linguistic and vocal characteristics collected during therapy sessions in hopes of detecting potential self harm or suicide.

In the pilot, 20 therapists working in schools in Southwest Ohio will deploy the mobile app to record regularly scheduled sessions with students.

‘Kids are coming to school with more trauma’

The focus for young and middle-school-aged children is on emotions, social interaction and behavior.

Northmont City Schools recently started an elementary program called Restorative Behavior Sessions in which students with behavioral needs participate in an all-day program with counselors.

Many schools have implemented Positive Behavior Intervention and Support or PBIS programs to improve students’ social-emotional skills.

Vandalia-Butler City School District received the region’s only districtwide award from the Midwest PBIS Network last year.

“Our kids are coming to school with more trauma from their home,” Helke Elementary Principal Brian Tregoning said. “There’s been a big push to help support these kids.”

RELATED: Schools focus on behavior management plans

The first phase of the program implements structure across the school so all children have the same behavior expectations. In the second phase teachers are trained in what to look for so they can target counseling to specific kids who continue to struggle.

Educators have seen improvements in behavior and more respect for fellow students during the first phase, Tregoning said.

“Kids really rely on the structure,” he said. “We’re just trying to be proactive and teach them the appropriate ways to do certain things.”

Preventing suicides and violence

Districts focus more on depression, anxiety and preventing suicides with students in junior high and high school.

RELATED: How Dayton can stop increase in teen suicides

Many schools have embraced recommendations to be more proactive, with prevention efforts led by students themselves. The most common program rolling out in schools is Hope Squad.

The program teaches students to look out for signs that their classmates might be struggling, know how to start a conversation with them, and how and when to get further help.

RELATED: Lakota teen squads start battling suicides, depression among peers

“Kids tell kids when they are struggling emotionally,” said Jennifer Wright-Berryman, assistant professor of social work at the University of Cincinnati and lead researcher for Hope Squad. “They’re already talking to their friends about suicide. It’s not a taboo subject among kids anymore.”

Lakota East and West and Mason high schools had Hope Squads in place this past school year. Kettering and Springfield students just completed the training and will use the program this school year. Oakwood, Centerville, Beavercreek, Northmont, Lebanon, Tipp City all said they are starting Hope Squads this fall.

More schools mandating screening

One recommendation from experts to improve youth mental health and catch suicidal thoughts early is to for all schools to do universal screening of students, similar to hearing and vision tests that every student participates in under Ohio law.

The American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines last year for diagnosing and treating depression in teens, recommending annual screenings for all children 12 and older.

RELATED: Officials hope mental health screening will prevent school violence, suicide

The Dayton Daily News survey found that some are doing such screenings for all students in middle school and above, while others only screen students deemed at risk.

Montgomery County Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services offers free screening and referral programs to every district in the county. Horizon Charter, Stivers and Jefferson Twp. high schools are participating, as well as all middle and high school students in the following districts: Vandalia-Butler, Miamisburg, Mad River, Trotwood, Huber Heights, Kettering, Northmont, Valley View, Northridge and New Lebanon.

Parents need help

Parents also need more opportunities for training, districts told the Dayton Daily News.

Funding is available from a number of sources to hire counselors at schools or bring in programming for students. But fewer resources exist to help parents learn the warning signs of mental health issues and how to navigate the system to get their child help.

School counselors act as family counselors in some cases.

RELATED: Youth mental health: What can parents do?

“The system is difficult to navigate between services and appropriate insurances, and there is an extreme lag time between need and treatment,” said Katy Lucas, director of student services for Miamisburg City Schools. “We have one social worker in the district who spends a good bit of her time connecting families to a variety of services and trying to support them through navigating a difficult system.”

At a recent listening session on youth mental health co-hosted by the Dayton Daily News and the Valley View Community Drug-Free Coalition, community members suggested using technology to deliver mental health training to parents via videos or podcasts.

More funding allocated in budget

Mental health prevention — and often treatment itself — is one more thing that has fallen to schools to deal with, district leaders told the Dayton Daily News. But they also recognized that due to costs and other barriers, many families have difficulty accessing mental health services outside of schools.

“It is not, nor ever should be, the sole responsibility of a school system. However, within the financial structures of Medicaid and insurance billing, the district can support parents in securing help for the child,” said Elizabeth Lolli, superintendent of Dayton Public Schools.

Some districts have partnerships with nonprofits and other agencies funded through grants or otherwise provided at no cost to the school system. But administrators said funding for more professionals in schools should be a priority.

“Trained mental health professionals are essential to helping educators understand the role of mental health within school contexts,” said Cherie Gibson, director of special services for Lebanon City Schools. “Funding is needed to ​hire additional staff to ensure that every building has mental health therapists, school psychologists, and social workers ​to assist our students and families with accessing care, consistent treatment, medicine compliance and suicide prevention.”

RELATED: State budget: DeWine wants money for kids and environmental projects

As the number of students with social-emotional needs and mental health concerns continues to rise, districts are faced with the need for more mental health support staff, said Ryan Gilding, public relations specialist for Beavercreek City Schools.

“Unfortunately, there is no additional funding allocated to districts to provide these supports,” Gilding said.

Gov. Mike DeWine’s budget includes $491.7 million for mentoring, mental health treatment and other services students need outside the classroom so that traditional school funding can be used for classroom instruction.

Montgomery County schools will receive varying amounts over the next two years ranging from $128,000 in Oakwood to $6.6 million for Dayton Public Schools, according to the Office of Budget Management.

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