Nearly three years ago, then-Desert Vista High School senior Armando Montero asked the Tempe Union Governing Board to endorse a March for Our Lives demand that the state provide more support for students’ social, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Last week, now Tempe Union Governing Board member Montero achieved a milestone in his years-long effort as he and fellow board members adopted a comprehensive policy for addressing students’ social, mental and emotional health that may be the first of its kind in the state.
Montero chaired the committee – comprising 25 administrators, parents and students as well as outside experts – that produced the policy, first unveiled last month and then tweaked by board members in a subsequent hearing.
The new policy sets out a broad range of objectives that prioritize “social emotional wellness as a critical component of improving school climate, safety, and learning.”
It also establishes campus- and district-level systems to implement a variety of best practices for preventing suicide and fortifying students’ mental and emotional health at a time when the pandemic has added new pressures to teens.
Even before anyone heard of COVID-19, experts and teens themselves were sounding the alarm about the pressures that already had made suicide the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24.
In the East Valley, more than 50 boys and girls have taken their lives since August 2018 – including several Tempe Union students.
The pandemic and its disruptive and isolating impact has become another factor in a social-mental-emotional crisis that has been fueled for years by the pressure for good grades, social media, bullying, drug and alcohol abuse and problems at home.
The Centers for Disease Control last week reported that in 2020, “the proportion of mental health–related emergency department visits among adolescents aged 12–17 years increased 31 percent compared with that during 2019.
“In May 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, ED visits for suspected suicide attempts began to increase among adolescents aged 12–17 years, especially girls. During February 21–March 20, 2021, suspected suicide attempt ED visits were 50.6 percent higher among girls aged 12–17 years than during the same period in 2019; among boys aged 12–17 years, suspected suicide attempt ED visits increased 3.7 percent,” the CDC continued.
It went on to state, “Suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach that is adapted during times of infrastructure disruption, involves multisectoral partnerships and implements evidence-based strategies to address the range of factors influencing suicide risk.”
Tempe Union’s policy does just that.
Montero, an Arizona State University junior who ran for election last year on a platform that stressed his commitment to improving students’ mental health, explained that the committee’s diverse composition enabled “a lot of really in-depth discussion, both from a professional and personal standpoint on what our teachers, and our students, our staff and community members really experienced.”
He cited the “multi-tiered system of support” that the new policy establishes to ensure its objectives are implemented and that their progress is monitored through feedback.
At each high school, a broad-based team will address “academic growth and achievement and also the behavioral, social and emotional needs of students through evidence-based strategies.”
Those teams will comprise administrators, teachers, counselors and social workers, parents and other specialists.
At the district level, a social and emotional wellness committee will collect and deliver progress reports to the school board at least once a year.
Superintendent Dr. Kevin Mendivil noted that this committee has existed for nearly three years but suggested it lacked much direction. He said the new policy “is extraordinarily helpful in providing focus and priority” for that group.
While suicide prevention is a major goal of the policy, it is only one of 16 goals.
The others include reducing the stigma of mental health needs through “social emotional learning strategies” in classes as well as the campus environment; “using trauma-informed practices aimed at helping students feel safe, connected and equipped to learn.”
Fostering peer-to-peer connections among students, “restorative discipline practices” that avoid over-reliance on suspensions and/or expulsions” and a referral mechanism to link students with community and school intervention specialists also are among the goals.
Also included are “developing strategies to promote a positive school environment;” “maintaining models for school-based collaboration, coordination,and consultation;” a protocol for addressing student safety concerns; and developing “adult/student interactions that convey mutual trust, support, and respect.”
“Modeling and promoting positive interpersonal and professional relationships among teachers, staff, and students” is another goal, as is keeping families and community members engaged.
Partnering with families on student health and academic success also is cited, along with trying to match students with “an adult advocate who has similar lived experiences to advise and individualize the educational and school experience.”
Besides coordinating with community agencies on students’ mental and emotional health, the policy also aims for “scheduling and student grouping practices that are flexible, meet each student’s needs, and ensure successful academic growth and personal development.”
Ensuring teachers are trained to recognize warning signs of suicide and know how to deal with them is another goal, although that already is a state law that applies to all school districts in Arizona.
The new policy also details protocols for preventing suicides and for steering campus reaction to a student’s suicide in ways that will reduce “suicide contagion among vulnerable students.”
Mendivil noted that the implementation of strategies to achieve all those goals will be part of professional development for teachers and other staff “and this is going to be kind of an all-year-long kind of thing as we grow and learn with this, and do better by our students and one another.”
Montero expressed his gratitude that the policy was adopted, recalling his owns struggles in each early school that included the loss of a friend to suicide.
He called that “part of the reason why I’m so passionate about bringing some of these changes forward” and said Tempe Union’s measures comprised “one of the most comprehensive mental health school district policies we have in the state.”
He added that “to really show our commitment to the whole student and making sure that we’re focusing on all of the needs of our students is huge.” ′