• Emily Berry

I confess, I left.

Updated: Jan 6, 2019

Three hours in to tonight's school board meeting, just after 10 p.m., I realized that I was so tired and mentally spent, that I wasn't sure if I would be able to coalesce a coherent sentence.

I knew I certainly would not be able to put together a series of sentences compelling enough that anyone would be interested in the contents.

I turned to my friend and said, "let's go." Another parent I recognized and who looked just as frustrated had already given up and left as well.

So instead, tonight at 10:45 p.m. I am at my dining room table with a sandwich and potato chips, composing a letter to the board and administrators covering what I wanted to say during the second public comment period -- the one that happened after I left. With food in my belly and with the ability to edit as I write, I am much more effective.


I'm also writing a short note to the board asking for some better management of the meetings, or, short of that, consideration of some other opportunities for feedback on specific items on the agenda. I'll share another time. Much more important, I think, was the work of the mental health workgroup that reported out to the board.


As I noted in my post yesterday, it is hardly news to school district leadership that we can do much better than we are today in supporting our students' mental health. At least since 2013, when the last student suicide shook our community, this has been a clear priority for parents, teachers, and community members -- anyone who cares about our kids.


By 2016, support for students' wellness was a clear stated priority in our strategic plan. The 2016-2017 school year's stated focus was mental health. But beyond district support of volunteer-driven work by REDgen, there was little tangible evidence of this focus, or concrete progress in offering expanded services or curriculum to students. Granted, we have a lot of other things going on, and I understand competing priorities. But there's been no public acknowledgement or accountability for the lack of progress. What happened after that meeting last June when it looked like plans for on-site counseling services were scuttled? Was anyone accountable for the time and energy spent on pursuing a potential deal with a Christian counseling agency -- what should have been a clear non-starter?


Well, no sense crying over spilled milk --more relevant to today, I'm not sure the board is asking for district staff to work with a sense of urgency. It did hear a report from the workgroup leaders, Director of Instruction Tim Joynt and SHS Assistant Principal Joe Patek at around the 1-hour mark of the meeting. Days after losing a student to suicide, school board members seemed totally content to wait another half-year for the next report back from the workgroup. I have no doubt that the leaders do have a sense of how important and urgent their work is, and that they will use those six months the best they can -- but this is where competing priorities come in. The board should make clear that progress can't wait another year.


As for the workgroup's agenda, I would like to share some thoughts I sent to board members:


Dear school district leadership,

   Forgive me for not staying late to speak to this directly at tonight's board meeting, but I was short on stamina and thought I could actually be more articulate if I wrote out my thoughts.

 First, I wonder if you might shed some light on why it seems like mental health work started over at zero this year. I recall serious discussions over on-site counseling last year, which fizzled out. I am concerned that a year after the district declared itself as focused on mental health, not much has changed for our students by way of support services or curriculum. I know that while we all understood mental health as important prior to last week, the loss of William Pemberton is a painful reminder of what is at stake with this work. We don't know, of course, that any additional counseling or the best mental health curriculum in the world could have saved him -- but we know it might save the next one. Maybe more importantly, we know that investing in kids' mental health will help them be more more joyful, happier and successful humans even if they are not struggling today.

   I am likely preaching to the choir here, so I will move on to the specific suggestions I have for the workgroup and district leadership:

   1) Please seek out external mental health professionals as advisors, whether formal or informal. Our school counselors and psychologists are wonderful, but  like every organization, outside expertise would lend credibility and reassurance that you are heading in the right direction. I don't want to see the district's work take a wrong turn again with this work.

  2) Please take every possible opportunity to consider and address the unique mental health needs of students who are racial minorities. There is plenty of literature suggesting that chronic exposure to racism is emotionally devastating, and given the Raceworks development that our teachers have completed, they should have a firm grasp of the threats young people of color face every day, and how much of a struggle a typical day at school could be in an unfriendly environment. When UWM researchers return to tell us about the experiences of our students of color, please consider how mental health services might be one way to mitigate the negative experiences they may be having in our schools.

  Please think through the needs of student who are LGBTQ, or who identify as gender non-conforming. Rejection at home and alienation from friends can put these young people at high risk for depression, anxiety and suicide.

   Please also consider the additional needs of girls and young people who identify as female, who are coping with threatened sexual violence and harassment along with gender-based discrimination, if not at school then in the world outside.

  We probably have students who fall into multiple categories above and who may for that reason be struggling to cope with the demands of school and life. Please make support for them a priority.

   When considering the groups above, please also connect that work to your ongoing efforts to recruit and retain a diverse staff and administration. Representation is hugely important to our students. We know that having a trusted adult to talk to at school can be a life or death difference for young people. Imagine how much more powerful that relationship could be if it included a shared experience as a person of color.

   We know that our students are less likely than peers in other districts to say they have a trusted adult to talk to at school and that they know of at least one adult who cares about their future. As we work toward more formal mental health services, the workgroup might consider a program focused on this single goal: making sure every student has a safe adult who pledges to be there for that student whenever they might be needed.

  Last on the subject of students in minority groups, [Edit: Thanks to a friend I realized this paragraph sounded like I was saying only minority students need social services. Which is of course not the case. I was thinking about this study and the section on prevention, which talked about mitigating the additional risk factors for depression and anxiety that come with living as a racial minority by identifying signs of struggle in early behavioral referrals. Students of all races and types of backgrounds can benefit from those social supports -- the study linked above acknowledges that students in racial and ethnic minorities are disproportionately living in poverty. That was the context for including it here]. I would encourage the district to connect behavioral referrals to potential social determinants like food security, home stability, physical abuse at home, drug or alcohol use at home, nutrition and poverty. Focus in particular on the kids in elementary school who have behavior challenges, and follow up by connecting them with services for the whole family where possible - whether that means parenting classes or connection to a food pantry. Earlier interventions that improve food security, physical safety and lower stress will mean stronger, healthier kids at SIS and SHS.

  3) In the "Tier 1" across-the-board social-emotional-learning curriculum, please talk about digital lives early and often -- in third or fourth grade, or even earlier. By the time kids get to SIS, they should know how to be good citizens online, and know how to cope and what to do when online drama becomes a threat to their mental health. 

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That's it, folks -- now it is really time for bed for me. More soon! There were some other very interesting topics at tonight's meeting that I need to save for another post, including the upcoming re-bid of our district's food service contract.  

 



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Emily Berry

Shorewood, WI 53211

emily@berryschoolsblog.com