Plum students call for more attention to mental health issues

Several Plum Senior High School students attended the school board’s April 26 meeting to call for more resources to address mental health.

“After spending two-and-a-half years of modified education — a hybrid schedule, not being able to see each other’s smiling faces, not having a normal high school experience and losing two of our classmates — it is easy to say that the students and staff have had a difficult and emotional past few years,” Matt Diss, student council president, told the board. “But would you all know this? Do you see this?”

Diss’ commentary focused on what he feels is a disconnect between students and Plum Borough School District officials. He said that he has seen an administrator have a genuine conversation with students just once, and has never seen a member of the school board during school hours.

“Maybe come and visit what you like is like for us and the teachers before you vote on a policy, a change or a new program,” Diss said.

His statement was echoed by sophomore Hailey Boccieri, who said that it’s important to educate students, especially males, about mental health issues and to break the stigma attached to them.

“We need to have people go into the younger schools and tell them that not being OK is 100% all right,” she said. “We need to tell the boys that they’re allowed to cry. They’re allowed to be upset. They don’t have to be this big, tough, I’m-not-going-to-be-upset person. They should feel comfortable going to someone and talking about their feelings.”

Hailey Drapcho, the school board’s student representative, said she spoke to classmates and the overall perception is that officials could and should do more on behalf of mental health. As something with room for improvement, she specifically mentioned Rachel’s Challenge, her school’s anti-bullying, kindness-promoting program,

“Many were telling me how they feel that Rachel’s Challenge is inadequate and not meeting the needs of high school students,” Drapcho said. “While the program may be more suitable and advantageous for younger students in the district, both the content and activities appear to not be as beneficial as they were planned to be in the high school, where we must especially and exceedingly place emphasis on supporting students .”

Superintendent’s response

The program, founded by the father of the first victim in the 1999 Columbine High School shootings, has been implemented in Plum since January, and addresses issues such as school violence, bullying, prejudice and self-harm. Prior to that, the district did not have “research-based systematic K-12 program(s) in place,” according to Superintendent Brendan Hyland.

“Our research and discussions with other educators strongly indicated that it could be very effective,” Hyland wrote in an email. “While we value the opinions of the students who spoke, we believe it is way too early to tell whether it is or is not working because it was just implemented in January.

“Other feedback we are receiving from the principals, counselors, and elementary/secondary students has been very positive, but we hear those students who have concerns,” the email continued. “As a district, we are continually evaluating our practices using quantitative and qualitative data to determine opportunities for improvement. As an example, the board added questions to the annual parent-student surveys related to Rachel’s Challenge and mental health services to obtain a wider lens perspective from all our families. We want to make sure we have the entire picture, and if that data warrants change, we will make changes.”

The district has added several resources over the past few years, including hiring three social workers and two psychologists, launching a student assistance program and stationing at least one school counselor in each building. Counselors and social workers present lessons in classrooms.

Resources to help families and students are listed on the district’s website, and are displayed on students’ computers and on every bathroom mirror. The district also built new fitness centers at the high school and junior high, and are creating a new student wellness room.

mental health crisis

While Hyland expressed pride in his employees and how much they care for their students, he also acknowledged that a lot more needs to be done outside of the school district with regard to young people’s mental health.

“There are countless interventions and assistance provided that many people won’t ever know about, for privacy reasons,” he wrote. “We are doing a lot, but to be blunt, we are facing a mental health crisis in this country. We have these students for approximately 6.5 hours for 182 days per year. There is significantly more time spent outside of school than inside our schools. However, we are earnestly striving to help these kids. We can’t do this by ourselves. We need the borough, the county, the state and the federal governments.

“This is an all-hands-on-deck issue. Our social workers, school counselors and families have shared numerous concerns regarding our students. Finding and collaborating with outside health care providers to address those mental health concerns is very problematic. We have students that have been identified as having mental health issues, referred for help, and the family waits in the healthcare and insurance system sometimes up to six months for an appointment, assuming they get one. It is very frustrating.”

Plum Borough parent and local educator Jennifer Martinez, whose son recently died, offered her thoughts about what can be done to equip schools better with regard to handling mental health issues.

“I believe that there should be screening questions at doctor offices for parents, and kids starting at the age of 10 should fill them out at yearly appointments,” she stated by email, so that doctors can “assess if they should recommend an appointment for a therapist to do an overall evaluation. I believe these assessments could be done in the schools every year, also, by students starting in fifth grade and parents in the beginning-of-the-year required packets. The schools would then be able to make recommendations for students to seek a full therapeutic evaluation.”

She offered other suggestions.

“I feel the district needs to have monthly parent meetings for parents to learn about mental health issues and services, a place where they can ask questions and get feedback by counselors about their child,” she wrote. “I also feel the district needs to begin implementing mental health education in all grades in a developmentally appropriate way. The district should also open up groups or club time for students who want to discuss what is going on with them, for students to understand that not being OK is OK, and that their story is not over.”

Logan Carney is a Trib Total Media contributing writer.

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