With eight social workers, 13 general counselors, three school psychologists and about 40 support groups, Evanston Township High School, is “very supportive of students who are in need of social/emotional services.” Administrators say. The eight social workers are spread among the four grades, special education and student assistance. Some groups are continuous; others are created in a given semester on an as-needed basis. Among the groups are anger management, IEP (individual education plan) goals, Wildkit Therapeutic Theater Workshop, Peer Jury, children of addicts, grief group and Bridge group (post-hospitalization support).
In addition to counseling support, the high school offers outreach and education on mental health issues, sexual assault awareness and connections and substance-abuse prevention programs; crisis response and services; referrals to community agencies and professional staff development in mental health areas.
ETHS administration’s Dr. Paula Insley Miller, associate principal for Student Services, and Dr. Maria Smith, director of Special Education, prepared a 14-page memo for the Board’s Oct. 8 meeting and, with a panel of some of the school’s mental health experts, made a PowerPoint presentation of the services offered at the high school.
One of the main concerns of the Board members who spoke appeared to be the ongoing need for support for students transitioning back to the ETHS after hospitalization due to a mental health issue.
In introducing the panel, Dr. Eric Witherspoon, superintendent, said, “Clearly, anything to do with mental health and student well-being relates to [two specific] Board goals.” He added, “Mental health is one of those works-in-progress.”
School psychologist Dr. Jim Wilczynski said between 60 and 80 ETHS students are hospitalized during a given year. Some students are hospitalized more than once, he said. In answer to a question from Board member Doug Holt about whether hospitalization could be prevented by intervention at the school, Dr. Wilczynski said some students who are hospitalized are already in support groups but “some are surprises – students who are working hard and are apparently succeeding.”
In terms of follow-up, Dr. Miller said the school will continue to use the Positive Behavior Intervention System (PBIS) model for group and individual supports. She said the school should continue to create a climate where students will feel “valued and known.”
ETHS socialworker Aracely Canchola said, “We want to engage students [more] – catch them in the hallways.”
Dr. Miller said anti-bullying information is incorporated at the freshman level, and there is staff development on helping students with mental health issues.
Dr. Wilczynski said the school teams should continue to work on helping students returning to school after being hospitalized. There are conversations with family members and with the student, if permitted, and with the professionals at the hospital.
Typically, these students will have a staggered re-entry, going to school, for example, on Monday morning, then Tuesday afternoon, then attending a full day and staying home a full day. The fact that they have a lot of people they must see and a lot of homework to make up can cause additional stress, so they have access to “safe passes” to seek counseling as needed.
Dr. Wilczynski said what he would like is for each student returning from hospitalization or to have one counselor to help him or her with social, emotional and academic support. He added such a program was “pie in the sky.”
Board member Jonathan Baum said, “I want to hear ‘pie in the sky,’ so that we can deliver the best services to our kids.” He encouraged the panel members to offer to the Board their “best judgment” of what supports could help ETHS students, within the school’s constrained resources.
At the May 20 Board meeting, Cari Levin, founder and executive director of CASE, Citizens for Appropriate Special Education, read a letter asking the Board to review its mental health services to ensure that the needs of students are met in a timely fashion.
“”For adolescents,”” Ms. Levin read, “”the first signs of mental illness or emotional distress often emerge in the school environment. The risk factors for teenagers are high. Nationally, over 20 percent of youth experience a diagnosable mental health problem. Research shows that emotional and behavioral health issues present significant barriers to learning, academic achievement and high standardized test scores.””
She also said at that meeting that many parents had contacted her organization with concerns that the school social workers and psychologists were “”so over-loaded with cases that they cannot offer students sufficient time and access to emotional support. Special services staff excessively delayed and refused to evaluate, despite evidence of severe mental health crises, including multiple hospitalizations and suicide risk.””
Ms. Levin said she was not criticizing the ETHS staff but asking that the school “”abide by its obligation under Federal Special Education Law (the IDEA) to identify, evaluate and provide services in a timely manner to students with mental-health-related disabilities at ETHS.””
She was joined at that meeting by a then-sophomore at ETHS, who said he had helped circulate the CASE letter and, within four days, obtained 225 signatures. He said he had heard from some students that they had expressed their concerns to a staff member and “”that staff member either reacted inappropriately or dismissed them entirely. These responses make it even harder for these students to speak up.””