Armando Montero of Ahwatukee

Board member Armando Montero of Ahwatukee is heading the committee.

Major developments occurred last week in efforts to adequately address the mental and emotional well-being of students in Kyrene and Tempe Union school districts.

Kyrene learned it was getting funding for social workers at Esperanza and Las Brisas elementary schools while the Tempe Union school board approved the creation of an ad hoc advisory committee “for the purpose of discussing and recommending policies to the Governing Board to address the social emotional wellness of all students.”

The committee will be chaired by new board member Armando Montero of Ahwatukee, who before he graduated from Desert Vista High School in 2019 was a vocal proponent of more attention being paid to students’ mental health. The committee will include various administrators and teachers as well as students and is to give the school board recommendations by May 21.

Kyrene Superintendent Laura Toenjes appeared last week at a press conference called by state schools chief Kathy Hoffman to announce the transfer of $21.3 million in federal pandemic relief funds to the Education Department’s School Safety Grant Program to cover requests for social workers and counselors that originally could not be funded because funds had been exhausted.

“The School Safety Grant program has brought more than 260 social and emotional support professionals to our schools – seeking to reduce our state’s student-to-school-counselor ratio, one of the highest in the nation,” the Education Department said in a release. “Despite these gains, demand outstripped program funds - leaving many schools on the waitlist.”

The additional money will enable districts that have been waiting for nearly two years to hire 71 counselors and 69 social workers across the state.

Toenjes said, “Kyrene is thrilled to be a recipient of the School Safety Grant, which will provide funding for positions that play a critical role in the mental health and emotional well-being of our children.”

“Social-emotional learning is about equipping students with the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, to maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions,” Toenjes said. “These skills create a foundation for high academic achievement, reduce harmful behaviors like drug use and bullying, and help children to be well-rounded students and good citizens.”

She noted that Kyrene had made a commitment two years ago to staff all its schools with counselors and “that commitment is more important now than ever before, as students are emerging from the life-changing impacts of COVID-19 and entering a period of social-emotional recovery.”

“The challenges presented by the global pandemic threaten our ability to continue funding counselor positions at the very moment when they are needed most,” she said.

Experts nationally are still assessing the pandemic’s impact on students of all ages.

Although initial national data show suicides among people under age 21 actually declined last year, experts say it is inevitable that the isolation and stress created by campus closures, online learning and other fallout of the pandemic will take an inevitable toll on young people.

Moreover, even before the pandemic, rising teen suicide rates had become a concern across the country. In Arizona, suicide was identified by state health officials as the leading cause of death for Arizonans ages 10-14.

Last September, state health director Dr. Cara Christ said nearly 41 percent of Arizona high school students who participated in the state’s 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported feeling “sad or hopeless” for two or more weeks in a row during the 12 months before the survey. That result was higher than the national average of 36 percent, Christ said. The survey also showed 16 percent of high school participants had made a suicide plan.

The resolution the Tempe Union board approved set out the issue that the new committee would be addressing. 

“A U.S. Surgeon General report indicates that one in five children and adolescents will face a significant mental health condition during their school years,” it said, noting this covers a wide range of disorders.

One of the obstacles to getting treatment is the stigma surrounding mental health issues, the resolution notes.

“For unfortunate historical and cultural reasons, mental health has persistently been stigmatized in our society,” it states. “This stigma is manifested by bias, distrust, stereotyping, fear, embarrassment, anger, and/or avoidance. Addressing psychosocial and mental health concerns in schools is typically not assigned a high priority, except when a high-visibility event occurs, such as a shooting on campus, a student suicide, or an increase in bullying. Additionally, efforts to address school-based services for mental health continue to be developed in an ad hoc, piecemeal and highly marginalized way.”

The resolution also states that the district “believes that for schools to promote a safe learning environment for all students, including those students who may be suffering from some form of mental illness, policymakers must provide adequate levels of access to mental health and counseling services for all students who attend our public schools, in order to foster success in school and to address the mental health needs of students suffering from some form of diagnosable mental illness.”

The resolution sets out a number of goals for training teachers and other school personnel.

Those goals include “techniques to identify students early on with, or at risk of, mental illness;” “the use of trauma-informed practices aimed at helping our students feel safe, connected, and equipped to learn;” “referral mechanisms that effectively link students to treatment and intervention services in the school and in the community;” and “strategies that promote a positive school environment.”

There are numerous other goals listed in the resolution, including “modeling and promoting positive interpersonal and professional relationships;” “partnering with students’ families in fostering the social, academic, and intellectual success of each student;” and “matching students with an adult advocate who has similar lived experiences, to advise and individualize the educational and school experience for each student.”

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